The siesta is one of the most famous aspects of Spanish life—that dead period in the late afternoon when everything shuts down in Spain, in theory, so people can rest and take a nap.
The Spanish take the siesta very seriously, even going so far as having a sleeping competition in its honor. But, on a normal day, do the Spanish really go to sleep at this time?
There are two periods of siesta in Spain—siesta for shops and businesses, when many people go to a bar or restaurant—and then siesta for the restaurants, who obviously can't rest when everyone wants to come and eat.
The siesta for shops and businesses is from approximately 2 p.m. until 5 p.m. while bars and restaurants close from about 4 p.m. until about 8 or 9 p.m.
Avoiding the Mid-Day Heat
Spain is a hot country, especially mid-afternoon, and the traditional reason for the siesta is for the workers in the fields to shelter from the heat. They would then feel refreshed after their sleep and would work until quite late in the evening, longer than they would have been able to without the siesta.
While people do still work outside in Spain, this reason doesn't account for why shops and businesses in big cities close down today. Indeed, offices can get hot too, but the invention of air conditioning has helped in this department. So why do they still do it?
Limiting Work Hours
One reason for the siesta is that there was a law that limited shop trading times to 72 hours per week and eight Sundays a year. With these limits, it made sense for businesses to close when many people are hiding from the heat and stay open later.
This would, in turn, reinforce itself, as people would stay off the streets as all the shops were closed anyway.
Several years back, the law on Spanish business hours was relaxed—currently, they are allowed to stay open for 90 hours a week and ten Sundays a year. Then, in 2016, the Prime Minister announced that official working hours were to end at 6 p.m. rather than 7 p.m., spelling the end of the two-hour lunch break.
And, as more and more people work in offices, most of which are now air-conditioned, this reason for the siesta doesn't hold as much weight.
Lunch is the Most Important Period of the Day
One big reason for the siesta is that the Spanish like to have a long lunch. At home, a mother will cook a huge lunch for the whole family (and yes, that does include for her grown son; it is still customary to enjoy a home-cooked meal as an adult out of the nest). This meal could last up to two hours (longer if time allows), and alcohol is often included. A rest before going back to work is essential after that.
The Spanish Don't Sleep Enough
According to a Washington Post article, the Spanish sleep an hour less per night than the World Health Organization recommends, while another source claims the Spanish go to sleep later than any country in the world, after Japan.
The reason is that Spain is in the wrong timezone. Spain shares the Iberian peninsula with Portugal, and, geographically speaking, is almost perfectly aligned with Britain, both of which operate on GMT, while Spain is on Central European Time, which extends as far east as Poland's border with Belarus and Ukraine.
The explanation supposedly is due to claims that Spain changed its timezone in World War II to follow Nazi Germany, but this is not strictly true.
In fact, most of Europe went to Central European Time during World War II, to avoid confusion about when exactly attacks were going to take place. After the war, most countries reverted to their old timezone, but Spain did not. No one knows why, but it wasn't to align with Nazi Germany, as the Germans had been defeated. In fact, Spain was allied with the UK and the U.S. in the post-war years as the West tried to keep Spain from falling into the Soviet Union's sphere of influence.
Sleeping in the Afternoon Is Good for You
Another reason why the Spanish stop for siesta is not so much out of need but out of want. The Spanish truly enjoy that traditional lunchtime break. It allows them to stay up later in the evening without fading. The nightlife of Spain may have caused (or maintained) the country's siesta culture, but it is the siesta that allows the late night partying lifestyle to continue, and many Spaniards don't want that to change.
The sun stays out much later in Spain than in most other European countries, thus encouraging later eating and partying. Spanish nightlife is an all-night affair. The streets start to fill up at midnight and Spanish people stay out beyond 3 a.m., which would be difficult without a siesta.
Also, a nap in the afternoon is good for you. The Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians says that a siesta reduces stress and improves memory, alertness, and cardiovascular performance. It's said that siestas should last around 25 minutes to have the optimal benefit.
The End of the Siesta
In truth, the siesta has been dying for a while now. A higher pressure modern job market means that many people are unwilling or unable to take long breaks, and air conditioning has helped them to work through the hottest part of the day.
The gradual disappearance of the siesta has not changed the late-night lifestyle, which means the Spanish sleep an average of one hour less per day than other European countries.
Even before the law changes and economic pressures, the siesta would hit Madrid and Barcelona much less than in Granada or Salamanca. Big supermarkets and department stores in much of the country stay open during the siesta. In winter, when the heat isn't stifling, this can be a good time to go shopping as many Spaniards will stay away.