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The term rosary is derived from the Latin rosarium, which means "rose garden." In the 14th century the word was used as a label for a series of devotional texts, but today it is used for the Dominican Rosary, a recitation of 15 decades of Hail Marys, each with a Lord's Prayer at the beginning and the Doxology at the end. In this usage, "decade" simply means a "series of ten" rather than ten years. The most famous and obvious aspect of the rosary is the string of beads used to keep track of the prayer recitation and to help remember what to say.

The reason why it is sometimes called the Dominicatn Rosary is due to a legend which tells that the recitation of the rosary dates back to St. Dominic during the 15th century, but there is no evidence that this story is true. The rosary as it is currently understood dates back to the 16th century, although aspects of it are certainly much older. The use of knotted strings or strings of beads for keeping count of prayers is, in particular, something found in a number of ancient religious traditions.

Traditionally, each of these decades is supposed to be accompanied by meditation upon one of three groups of five mysteries about the life of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. These three groups are called the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries. The Joyful mysteries are about Jesus' birth, the Sorrowful mysteries are about his crucifixion and the Glorious mysteries are about his resurrection.

In 2002, Pope John Paul added a fourth set of mysteries, the "mysteries of light," which focus upon five different periods during Jesus' life. These "mysteries of light" are: his baptism, the wedding feast at Cana where he is believed to have transformed water into wine, his proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Transfiguration when the apostles were ordered by God to listen to Jesus, and the institution of the Eucharist.

Traditionally, the five joyful mysteries were recited on Mondays and Thursdays, the five sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays, and the five glorious mysteries on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The five new mysteries of light are to be recited on Saturdays.

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