During a recent break at a business meeting, and while my customer was pouring a second cup of coffee, I was hit with the siesta question. Again.
I had been thinking of writing a short post on the subject for quite some time, so after this incident I decided to get started. In fact, there are few words in the Spanish language which are this well-known across the world – siesta is right up there with fiesta, mañana, and probably cerveza. (Funnily enough, you could place them all under the same category of “leisure,” but this is a subject for another post.)
The origins of the siesta, and the purpose it served.
The actual fact is that the siesta dates back to a time when most Spaniards lived in villages and worked in farm fields to make a living. These people would get up in the early hours of the morning to go and harvest their cereal fields in summer, work until midday, have their lunch, and would then rest to avoid the hours of extreme heat during the day. This nap would allow them to carry on working until well past the sunset.
On a historical note, the siesta seems to have been first “established” in the VI century by the Rule of Saint Benedict, a book of spiritual guidance to monks living in religious communities written by Saint Benedict of Nursia, and the seed of the Benedictine religious order. The Saint’s spiritual motto was “Ora et labora” (Pray and work), and, as work was mostly agricultural, then working hours were set according to the sun.
Take a look at this rough diagram of the medieval system of canonical hours:
Sexta was Latin for the sixth hour of daylight, and it was the time when the sun was at its highest point. Unsurprisingly, this was considered an inappropriate time to do any work, and was therefore established as a time to rest. It’s easy to see how the Latin word sexta turned into siesta, while keeping pretty much the same meaning.
As my family comes from a small village in rural Castile which kept up medieval agricultural practices until around the early 80s, I experienced the use and significance of the word siesta first-hand. I recall my grandfather telling me that only fools left the house “between siesta hours” (under the beating sun).
Why urbanization did away with the siesta.
Back to modern times, the rural exodus that Spaniards went through in the mid-60s and early 70s made people change their farm fields for industrial factory jobs first, and air conditioned office jobs in services later on. Today, the majority of people in highly urbanized Spain do not work in agriculture anymore, and therefore the siesta has almost disappeared from the working landscape. We mostly reserve it for our lazy summer holidays when midday heat makes outdoor activities a bit unpleasant.
As a matter of fact, figures by FUNDADEPS show that a mere 16% of Spaniards claim to have a nap after lunch these days. And much as doctors today preach about the benefits of having a midday nap, the fact is that this is no longer current practice in corporate Spain.
Therefore, for those who pride themselves on being well-travelled professionals, here is a simple piece of advice that will go a long way when visiting Spain for work or doing business with Spanish companies – just don’t mention the siesta (unless you want to give the impression that you have just been “Stargated” forward in time from the nineteenth century).