This year in the midst of the festive holiday season, as we recover from the Christmas feasts and prepare for the New Year celebrations, I thought I’d make use of this downtime to tell you about Spain’s famous Christmas Lottery-El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad. Commonly referred to as El Gordo (the fat one, in reference to the first prize) this lottery was started in 1812 and is the world’s second oldest continually running lottery.
In other parts of the world the lottery is often not looked upon as a positive thing, and dismissed as a waste of money. In the US, it is often considered equivalent to a giant gambling operation that is often sold to the public under the guise of charity and helping the children. In India, it is frowned upon and believed to be rife with corruption, often used as a conduit to convert ill-gotten gains into legal winnings. With all this awareness and background, I was understandably hesitant to buy into the Christmas Lottery.
However, over time I have come to learn that the lottery in Spain doesn’t carry the negative stigma it does in the rest of the world. In fact, it brings people closer together. Friends, colleagues and even my boss at work explained to me that the Christmas Lottery has become an inherent part of the Spanish culture and tradition.
Organizations typically pick a number and patrons of that organization are encouraged to buy tickets of that number either from the lottery administration or from that organization. The organization may be your employer, local restaurant, bar, gymnasium, corner grocery store, favorite charity, etc. The idea is that if that number wins, you along with your colleagues at work, or friends at the local bar, or workout buddies at the gym, all win and celebrate together. It’s fairly common during Christmas for friends and families to gift each other lottery tickets with the same number as theirs.
You might be wondering how everyone can buy a ticket with the same number. Well, the way it works is that tickets have a 5 digit number ranging from 00000 to 99999. For each 5 digit number there are multiple series. However, the series have no direct impact on the winnings. They simply allow for the sale of more than just 100,000 tickets. Typically, a single ticket (decimo) costs € 20. However those who prefer not to spend € 20 on a single ticket, can purchase a number of smaller participations through whatever local organization (bar, employer, restaurant, etc.) they choose. For example, a 25% participation would cost € 5 and entitle you to 25% of any winnings on that ticket.
As measured by the total prize payout, the Spanish Christmas Lottery is considered the biggest lottery worldwide. Without getting into the details, the prize structure of the Christmas lottery makes it easier to win some money compared to most other lotteries, and it is commonly believed that the prizes of the Christmas Lottery are well-distributed all around Spain. For example, chances of winning the largest prize (El Gordo) are 1 in 100,000, that is 0.001%, while chances of winning the top prize of the Euro Millions lottery are 1 in 116,531,800 or 0.0000000086%.
Every year, the lottery is accompanied by an eagerly anticipated heart-warming commercial. This commercial from 2014 perfectly illustrates the concept of a common lottery ticket number at your local bar and gives you a peek into the typical celebrations one sees. The ad shows Manuel who didn’t buy a lottery ticket at his local coffee shop (typically referred to as a bar). As luck would have it, that was the winning number. Heartbroken, he enters the bar amidst the celebrating customers to congratulate his friend Antonio, the bar owner. What happens next literally brought tears to my eyes when I watched this ad for the first time, and still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.
The most elaborate part of the lottery is the drawing, which in itself is quite a sight. Since 1812, the Christmas Lottery drawings have been held every year following the exact same procedure. Held every 22nd of December in a grand theater in Madrid, the drawings are made from 2 large spherical cage-like vessels that contain wooden balls with laser inscribed numbers to prevent any discrepancies in weight.
The larger vessel contains 100,000 balls, each with a unique 5-digit number on it, from 00000 to 99999. The smaller vessel contains 1,807 balls, each one with a prize in euros inscribed on it. The actual drawing is carried out by students of the San Ildefonso school (formerly reserved for orphans of public servants), who announce the results proudly and jubilantly in song. Click here to watch a brief video showing the drawing of a winning number.
The lucky winners are seen and heard all over the TV and radio, with typical images including delighted winners popping open bottles of cava in celebration. The not so lucky participants take consolation in the much used phrase “your good health is the biggest prize”, or some variation thereof.
We love to participate and be part of the excitement of the event. In years when the 22/12 falls on a weekend, we leave the television turned on all day in the background and enjoy the grandeur of the event. On 2 occasions, we won a refund for the ticket price, but never anything more. So like the rest of the population, we continue to religiously participate. However, we try not to spend too much on it. Buying just a single ticket through my employer allows us to participate in the dream of endless possibilities, and enables us to feel the magic of the Spanish Christmas Lottery.
Before I end this post, I’d like to take a second to wish all my readers and their families a very happy holiday season. I hope everyone had a very merry Christmas and has a prosperous and fruitful new year!