Society & Culture - Siestas

An Age-Old Tradition in the Face of Global Pressure

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The siesta remains dear to many.

Imagine that you hire a new employee and the first thing he does is stake out a comfortable area for his afternoon nap.

That is precisely what happened to Englishman Terry Clear when he hired a construction company to build his country home in rural, inland Andalucia in 2003.

"Before they did anything on the house, they looked for the perfect place to set up a plastic shield for shade and tie their hammocks between the olive trees," he remembers with a good sense of humour.

Clear has lived in rural Andalucia for nearly two decades after years vacationing on the Costa del Sol. He claims that people in the village near his farm apply religious zeal to their siestas.

The siesta Clear is talking about is an actual nap. Less integrated foreigners sometimes refer to the long mid-day break in services as the "siesta". That, however, is what Spaniards call mediodía (midday), which is when they have "la comida", or their heaviest meal. When Spaniards talk about the siesta, they mean the optional nap that some people choose to take after that heavy mid-day meal, and others choose - or are forced - to forego.

My Spanish father-in-law says that only construction workers, farmers, children and retired people take siestas, and my husband insists that today's professionals do not have time for a nap after lunch during weekdays. This is in line with a 2004 report by the BBC titled "Spanish Siesta, Adios?" in which journalist Katya Adler states that "the country's corporate culture now spurns the idea of daytime dozing as being unproductive, and the siesta is fast becoming an endangered institution". According to Adler, "globalisation in the workplace and the rising number of multinational companies in Spain means businessmen cannot afford to disappear from their desk for hours."

That may be true - in Madrid, Barcelona and other big cities, but the fact of the matter is that the rest of Spain and particularly areas like Andalucia that are predominantly rural, hold the long mid-day break as sacred, thus breeding a siesta culture that many subscribe to, if only for a few brief nods while watching the news after a big lunch.

And that could be very good if research from the Harvard School of Public Health is backed up by further studies in the future. In 2007 investigators published the results of a six year study involving more than 23,000 healthy Greeks between the ages of 20 and 80 years old and found that those who took naps of any kind and for any length of time were 34 percent less likely to die of heart disease than those who didn't nap. Even more interesting was the finding that those who made napping a regular habit at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes were even less likely to die of heart problems.

According to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, naps can also make you more alert right after you wake up and help you stay alert longer in the day than you would without that nap. They say naps can also help you perform better and make fewer mistakes on after nap tasks. Finally, they say "napping has psychological benefits... It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation".

There is, therefore, much to be said in favour of a good old Spanish siesta, but does that mean the custom is here to stay in spite of pressure form multinational companies?

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The siesta appeals to young and old alike.

Both Englishman Terry Clear and my Spanish father-in-law pointed out to me that in all their years they haven't seen any change in the practice - and my father-in-law goes back to the Spanish Civil War. Both seem to feel that Spaniards will continue napping as the country rushes headlong into a global marketplace.

But in actual fact, siesta lovers may face important obstacles. To begin with the National Sleep Foundation cites the social stigma attached to catching a few mid-day zzz's in a western world where "napping is only for children, the sick and the elderly" and where such behaviour "indicates laziness, a lack of ambition and low standards".

This social stigma is one problem the Spanish siesta has faced for centuries - if not from within, then from without. The Handbook for Travellers in Spain, published in 1845 mocked the peoples of Murcia saying that "the better classes vegetate in a monotonous unsocial existence; their pursuits are the cigar and the siesta..." This is just one example of how outsiders have looked down on the siesta custom as proof of Spaniards' laziness.

But social stigma is not the biggest problem faithful nap-takers face. In fact, snoozers across the country face a threat that - believe it or not - is even greater than noise levels in this country, and that is a national commission called "Los Horarios en España" (Spanish Schedules) that is working hard to eradicate the very lifestyle that permits the siesta in the first place.

Members of this national commission include high level government officials, presidents of important companies and organisations, academics, and even prestigious researchers like the top sociologist Amando de Miguel from Madrid's Complutense University. Their single-minded aim is to get Spaniards into a nine-to-five workday just like the rest of Europe and this, my friends, could spell the virtual end of the Spanish siesta - yes, even in good old, laid back Andalucia.

That would be the end of the Spanish version of a tradition that authors Theresa O'Shea and Valerie Collins tell us began way back in the sixth century. In their book titled "In the Garlic", they explain that Saint Benedict divided the day into three hour sections with the one named "sexta" falling on noon. After that hour, he said that monks should rest and be silent. From there it was only a matter of time that the tradition spread throughout the Catholic Church. In Spanish "the word sextear gradually morphed into sestear or guardar la siesta.

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Modern values threaten the siesta tradition.

In other words, we're looking at a tradition that has gradually evolved and moulded itself over the course of nearly 1,500 years. We're talking about a tradition that is proving scientifically to be healthy - and even useful in the workplace, thanks to increased, "after nap" productivity.

Perhaps professionals, multinational companies and a national commission bent on eradicating the Spanish way of life have something to learn from construction workers, farmers, children, the elderly (and a multitude of others who sneak their siestas in secret to avoid being labelled as lazy and unproductive).

And perhaps we would all do well to follow the example of those wise, construction workers, who have their priorities so very clear: next time you have a project to do, scope out the perfect "siesta-zone" before you even begin to work!

Tips for a Super Siesta

  • According to the National Sleep Foundation those wishing for a sensational snooze - one that comes with all the health benefits - would do well to mind the following advice: Set yourself up for success in a quiet place with low light and a comfortable temperature.
  • Set that sleepy time stage at the right time of day, in other words, early enough to ensure you can still sleep well at night.
  • Set your alarm clock if necessary - to be sure you don't sleep more than about half an hour. That way you'll wake up alert instead of groggy.