If you’ve ever experienced a Spanish summer, you know that the heat can be unbearable. Many businesses will board up for all of August so that employees can escape the torturous sun. This heat is responsible for more than an annual month-long vacation, though: It’s also why the world-renowned siesta was born.
In the 1700s, many farmers would hurry indoors around noon for a reprieve. (“Siesta” is named after “hora sexta”— which means “sixth hour”— because noon is the sixth hour after dawn.) They would stay indoors during these hottest hours of the day, devouring a heavy lunch and then sleeping for 15-30 minutes to get another boost of energy before returning to the fields.
Over the next couple hundred years, the siesta was adopted by other Spaniards and became customary. Businesses and storefronts would close between 2-5 p.m., while restaurants and bars would shutter between 4-6 p.m. This would allow people enough time to meet their family and friends for the large midday meal, followed by a short nap (they unknowingly adopted a bi-phasic sleep schedule). This is also why Spain’s mealtimes are spread so far apart: breakfast around 8 a.m., lunch after 2 p.m., and dinner as late as 10 p.m.
The siesta is losing steam in Spain, however. Due to the declining Spanish economy, and because Spain must adhere to global business practices and local tourism needs, it’s imperative that companies work standard hours without such a long midday break. The siesta has been abandoned in large cities in particular, such as Barcelona and Madrid, with mandated August vacations likely soon to follow. However, some rural villages are keeping the tradition alive, as are beach towns; many Spaniards flock to these coastal destinations in the hot summer months and revive the tradition as they battle midday drowsiness and prepare for late, celebratory evenings.
It’s not all bad news, though. The siesta has taken off in other warm Southern European countries, like Greece and Italy. (We’ll spare any commentary on Greece’s own economic conditions.) Many Italians take a “riposo” as early as noon and lasting a couple hours. And many churches, shops and museums will shut down for the short window of time while employees eat and rest. Nigeria employs a similar custom, as does the Philippines (the latter largely because of Spanish influence on its culture). In some South American countries like Chile or Argentina, a midday break is often observed without any threat of heat; instead, it’s a mental escape — a time to break up the workday and socialize or rest.
A different form of the siesta, the workplace nap is gaining popularity in many countries. China considers it a constitutional right to rest one’s head for an hour after lunch. And many U.S. companies such as Google and Nike have designated nap rooms for employees to rejuvenate on arduous workdays. If introduced in Spain, the mid-day nap could find a second life as a workplace staple.
It’s hard to argue the benefits of midday naps. Among other literature, there's the 2007 Harvard School of Public Health study, which surveyed 23,000 Greeks between the ages of 20 and 80. Upon physical examination, participants who reported taking regular naps were 34 percent less likely to die from heart disease. As a short-term benefit, naps make people more productive and alert in the latter half of the day, as brief catnaps boost memory, focus and general cognitive function. Human circadian rhythm more naturally allows for brief midday rest, because the body knows that it must endure many more hours in the day before falling into a 6-8 hour night of totally restorative sleep. In one form or another, with or without the sun, the siesta will live on.