For every cultural stereotype, there’s often a very specific set of historical circumstances that made it possible. For instance: the American image of Paris as an impossibly elegant and cinematic alternate dimension actually did, largely, come from Hollywood. And when it comes to the image of Spain as a sun-drenched, lazy country where everyone takes luxurious mid-day naps, you can probably trace that back to the PR efforts of the Franco regime in the ’50s and ’60s — a time when Spain was trying to draw in tourists on the promise of siestas and good times.
If you ask the average person in Spain, though, siesta is hardly an accurate word to describe it. A siesta is a nap, usually taken in the afternoon. Some alternative terms might include descanso (break), descanso de mediodía (mid-day break) or hora del almuerzo (lunch hour).
While it’s true that it’s common to take a mid-day break in Spain, the majority of working-age people don’t go home to nap. Here’s what it’s really all about.
The Siesta Of Yesterday
If we go back all the way to the very first origins of this cultural trope, we land in modern-day Italy. The word siesta actually derives from the Latin sexta, which comes from the Roman tradition to take a break at the sixth hour of the day.
For the most part, Italy has retained this tradition too (known as a riposo), but Spain’s history played a large role in making the siesta its own cultural phenomenon (namely, the kind with a mid-day nap). After the Civil War, it was common for people to work two jobs to support their families — a morning shift and an evening shift. Having a two-hour break in between allowed them to recharge a bit before going to their next job, or merely to get from one place to another.
Traditionally, another important reason for the siesta was to beat the mid-day heat, particularly for workers in the fields. Spain and Italy are hardly alone in this — other countries close to the equator, like Greece, Mexico, Ecuador, The Philippines, Costa Rica and Nigeria, all observe similar hours.
These working hours (approximately 9-2, and then 4-8) remained ingrained in Spain’s working culture, even though most people now work in urban areas.
The Siesta Of Today
The siesta isn’t a monolith. And it doesn’t always happen at the same time for everyone. Office workers might leave to take a lunch or run errands between 2 and 4 p.m. Small shops and businesses might close down at about the same time. And then restaurants will close once the lunch rush is done, reopening in time for dinner, which starts late in Spain (around 9 p.m. at the earliest).
Though children and elderly people might opt to take a snooze, most people with jobs don’t take naps in the middle of the workday. In a lot of cases, it’s simply not feasible, especially for people who have long commutes. According to a 2016 survey, roughly 58 percent of Spaniards don’t nap at all, compared to 18 percent who say they take naps at least four or more days out of the week. Another 16 percent naps anywhere from one to three days out of the week, and 8 percent even less frequently than that.
Long lunches are a common way to spend one’s mid-day break, as is running errands or simply working through one’s break.
Contrary to common stereotypes, the Spanish actually work longer hours than many of their neighbors in Europe: 1,687 hours per year compared to 1,681 in Britain, 1,514 in France and 1,356 in Germany.
This is due to a culture of presentismo, which puts pressure on workers to stay later than they need to in order to make a good impression (and bolster their job security). This worsened in the last decade post-recession, given that Spain continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the European Union. In June 2022, Spain’s was the highest in the EU.
However, the pandemic has likely offset some of this pressure for some workers. Though most (83 percent) of workers did not have the opportunity to work from home in 2020 in Spain, significantly more Spaniards were telecommuting in 2021 — an increase from 9.8 percent to 25.2 percent.
The Siesta Of Tomorrow
As Spain continues to consider the needs of workers in the modern economy, the state of the siesta is currently hanging in the balance.
In 2016, then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced a proposal to end the official workday at 6 p.m., nixing the two-hour lunch break so that workers can get home to their families at a more reasonable time. And polls show most Spaniards would have preferred this.
Additionally, Spain has been toying with the idea of changing its time zone back to that of Britain and Portugal. During World War II, Franco moved Spain’s time zone ahead one hour to Central European Time in solidarity with Nazi Germany. Because of this, the sun also tends to set pretty late in Spain, which is part of the reason dinner (and nightlife) tends to start so late. Spaniards also go to bed later on average, and they have a sleep deficit compared to the European average. But such is life when you’re committed to raging hard.
In 2017, 110 professional bodies in Catalonia signed on to a plan to change the regional workday by 2025. It’s unclear where things stand with this currently, but it doesn’t seem as though the pandemic has left the siesta behind. If anything, it may have created a more convincing argument for it.
Writing for The Washington Post, Jason Wilson writes, “Yet in 2021, if the siesta was supposedly dying, I saw little evidence. Shops and businesses shut down at 2 p.m. and reopened at 4, just like always. Some Spanish friends told me that, if anything, the pandemic — with its lockdowns and working from home and narrowing of the world — had led to a rekindling of their relationship with the siesta.”
It’s unclear what the future holds for the siesta, or the Spanish workday, for that matter. If it changes, perhaps Spain can finally begin to live up to its reputation of being well-rested.
This article was originally published on August 8, 2018. It has been updated with more current information.