Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Invention of Siestas

The New York Times has an interesting article today on the problems posed by the traditional Spanish siesta in modern Spain. The gist is that whereas Spaniards used to take a long nap in the afternoon during the siesta, nowadays many people don't have time to go home (long commutes, etc.) so instead take really, really long lunches that last until 5pm. Unfortunately, that means the workday lasts from 9 to 8, and they end up depriving themselves of sleep because they go to bed so late but don't recover the sleep during an afternoon nap. So people are talking about getting Spain in sync with the rest of Europe, and the siesta is declining under the pressure.

But for me, the most interesting part of the article is that the siesta, so much a part of Spanish identity and tradition, isn't even that old of a tradition:
Mr. Buqueras said many Spaniards mistakenly believed that a long break at midday had always been a part of the Spanish lifestyle. "As late as 1930, lunchtime was between 12 and 1, and dinnertime started at 7 or 8," he said. "If you look at the newspapers or novels from the beginning of the century, they all show it."

What is unclear, he said, is why habits changed. Some historians point to the Spanish Civil War, which was fought from 1936 to 1939. It is possible, Mr. Buqueras contended, that "the hunger that is always caused by wars forced people to work two jobs to survive," one in the morning and one at night. The midday break would have given them time to get from one job to the other. "But there are no definite causes," he said.
Reminds me of the relationship between nationalism and the invention of tradition. Granted, siestas surely weren't started as a method to bolster Spanish national identity; but I bet someone could write a neat Ph.D. thesis on how a quirky work schedule possibly induced by wartime evolved into a part of what it means to be Spanish, so that after a few decades, the prime minister says that "The work schedule is what distinguishes Spaniards, but it is also what defines us." Even the BBC says, "For centuries in Spain, heading home mid-afternoon for lunch and a snooze was regarded as something of a national right."


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