Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


is the Spanish siesta under siege?

I recently read a New York Time’s article entitled, “Spain, Land of 10pm Dinners, Asks if it’s Time to Reset the Clock.” It outlines the ongoing debate about whether Spain should scrap its long-held tradition known as the siesta: a topic near and dear to my (former) Spanish expat heart. My immediate reaction to this question is a desperate “Nooooo!” as I long for the days I lived in Spain and enjoyed long lunches and “afternoons” that extended well into what we in the US consider evening, making days seem almost endless. But with Spain’s economy still suffering and unemployment at a whopping 26%, people are starting to question whether a move to a more 9-to-5-like schedule would be a good one.

The origin of the siesta

The word “siesta” comes from the Latin “sexta,” which referred to the sixth hour after sunrise, when the sun was at its highest peak. Historically, people in Spain and other hot European countries would take a break from their work at this hour, the hottest point of the day, and return re-energized to their work later in the afternoon. This tradition has persisted through the years, but this is slowly changing. In big Spanish cities, many businesses now stay open through siesta hours, and the idea that the siesta could be hurting Spain’s already broken economy is gaining strength.

The nap myth

In any discussion of the siesta, I feel the need to dispel this myth, as a service to my Spanish friends and “family.” Contrary to popular belief (and contrary even to what this current NYT article says), the afternoon “siesta” does NOT typically include an all-out nap.  I was asked by many of my students if we foreigners actually believe that they nap during siesta. When I told them that yes, most people do believe that, they were practically offended. They strongly reject the notion that the Spanish are lazy people who sleep the afternoon away. It’s not uncommon to see people taking a quick snooze on a hillside or park bench over the extended lunch hour, but almost no one is going home and crawling under the covers. The long break is to allow time to join with other family members and/or friends, have a nice, big meal (there, lunch is the biggest meal of the day) and have a little time to go for a walk or just relax after eating.

“Longer” work days

One point in favor of doing away with the siesta schedule is that it would give families more time together in the evenings. A standard Spanish work timetable is one of two options:

1. La “jornada continua/intensiva” (8:30ish-3:30ish, no lunch break) The people I knew with this schedule were teachers and a few dentists and specialist doctors. They do take a short mid-morning coffee break for a quick snack, but basically these people don’t sit down to a full meal until what we in the US would consider “late afternoon.” This is the less common of the two schedules, but the preferred one for most people. There is a slight pay cut, in most cases, for those who have this schedule, as they are working only  35 hrs/week.

2. La “jornada completa” (8:30ish-2ish, break for “siesta,” 4ish-7ish) The exact hours vary by business/profession, but the moral of the story is that most employed Spanish people don’t return home for the day until around 8pm, and most businesses (except for restaurants/cafes) have both mañana (morning) and tarde (afternoon/evening) hours, but are totally closed for business from 2pm until 4pm or 5pm.

Living on Spanish time

The Spanish timetable really is a striking feature of their culture, unlike any other in the world. A Spanish banker interviewed in the aforementioned article puts it this way: “It is the Spanish identity, to eat in another time, to sleep in another time.” This feature of Spanish identity and culture is something I was absolutely enchanted by living there as an expat. Obviously the midday break was fabulous, and another feature I really enjoyed about their shifted timetable is that they consider it to be “afternoon” until about 9pm. This makes each day seem so much longer, especially in summer. There is no hurry to get home and be in for the night. On the contrary: you’re encouraged to squeeze out every last drop of every day that you possibly can. That is a beautiful thing. On weekends and in summer, this almost endless day slides easily into an extended night, with late dinners that can stretch on past the bewitching hour.


Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun

Post-lunch relaxing under the siesta sun


Long lunches: excessive or essential?

Brazil recently released new food-based dietary guidelines, and 3 of the 10 guidelines (#s 4, 5 and 8) talk about the importance of taking your time eating, being with others and being present (i.e. not eating while working, driving, etc.) The siesta allows for this. This stands in stark contrast to the US, where most people race through their lunch break with just 30-minutes allotted, and many just eat at their desks or on the run while still working. All you have to do is compare the overall health of the population in countries where long, drawn-out family meals are the norms and compare it with that of countries where efficiency and convenience rules in all arenas (including dining) and you can see that this need for speed is really detrimental to the population. I would be sad to see Spain pushed over to that side.

The “night owl” culture

A common exercise with lower-level EFL students is to have them tell you their daily routine (I usually get up at ____, then I ____. After that I ___. I go to bed at about ____., etc.) so I became quite familiar with the “norm” of a daily routine for a typical Spaniard. My students were of a variety of professions, from engineers to dentists to teachers, and they almost all reported their “bedtime” as 11:00 or later on work nights. I also lived with two young Spanish professionals–a lawyer and a med student in residency, so I can confirm these norms first-hand. As the NYT article points out, the “prime time” hours for TV are 10pm-1am, and 12 million Spaniards are still watching TV at 1am. Families with young kids do tend to eat dinner earlier, around 8, and put the kids to bed by 9. But on weekends, it’s not unusual to see entire families (young kids and all) out to dinner past 10pm, and keeping kids up that late on weekends is certainly not looked down on like it is in the US.

So I guess my answer is this: they sleep about the same amount that we do, but seem to be much more resilient in flip-flopping their sleep schedule from week to weekend. During the week, they do go to bed later on average than Americans do, and maybe get up slightly later than the average American worker. On weekends, they stay up and out MUCH later than most Americans do, as the bar nightlife doesn’t even really get going until about midnight, and goes strong until as late (early?) as 6am. Those who go out do then, of course, sleep much later than the average American does on the weekend.

An uncertain fate

It’s hard to say whether the siesta will continue to be phased out as it already seems to be in the larger Spanish cities. I can’t even begin to hypothesize on potential solutions to fix Spain’s broken economy, but I’d like to think that getting rid of something so ingrained in Spanish culture isn’t the way to do it. It is these cultural differences that allow us to learn from each other, see things in new ways and reconsider our own way of doing things. Would the world really be a better place if everyone adapted to the model of the 9-5 grind? I think not.

¡Viva la siesta!