If you’re puzzled by all the long queues on streets around Spain in the lead-up to Christmas, then wonder no more. Welcome to Spain’s unique ‘El Gordo’ (the Fat one) lottery, the richest in the world.
Every year at Christmas, Spaniards go lottery mad, queuing for hours to buy tickets for the famous Christmas lottery.
In 2015 prize money totalled €2.2 billion ($2.74 billion), with the top individual prize, known as El Gordo (the Fat One), being €4 million.
2014’s winning number – “El Gordo”. Photo: AFP
With the odds of winning at least something put at one in six, no wonder the Christmas lottery has a whole nation gripped. According to Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, 75% of Spaniards play the Spanish Christmas lottery, spending a total of 0.3% of Spain’s GDP, or €3.2 billion.
Spain’s state lottery estimates that in 2015 each Spaniard spent, on average, €62.72 on Christmas lottery tickets.
El Gordo is a Spanish institution and the second oldest lottery in the world. The first Christmas lottery took place on 22nd December 1812 in Cádiz and the event has been taking place on the same day every year since.
Behind the counter is Doña Manolita, owner of one of the most famous lottery shops in Spain.
Not even the Spanish Civil War could stop the Christmas lottery, which moved to Valencia when the Republican government had to relocate their capital from Madrid. After the war, the lottery moved back to Madrid and continued under the regime of the dictator Francisco Franco.
How it works
Because so many people in Spain take part in El Gordo, the ticketing system is complicated. Unlike in the UK, for example, you don’t go into a newsagent and shade in the numbers you want on your lottery card. Instead, lottery shops have certain numbers available. This is why the big winners of the Christmas Lottery are usually from the same area: many people have bought tickets from the same shop which holds all the winning tickets.
This assigning of numbers to certain shops means if you want to ‘play’ a particular number, you might have to travel quite a way — or buy your tickets online. It’s also possible to track down where to buy your preferred number using online search tools like this one from El País.
Photo: The queue for lottery tickets from Doña Manolita lottery shop, Madrid. Photo: Sara Houlison.
In terms of prizes, because so many people take part, numbers are repeated up to 160 times. That means if you do win El Gordo, you will be sharing your prize with at least 159 others. This explains why the top individual prize in the biggest lottery in the world comes in at a ‘mere’ €4 million.
One ticket (billete) costs a whopping €200, but many people choose to buy a tenth of a ticket (un décimo) for €20. Even smaller portions of tickets are sold: it is common for businesses to buy a ticket then sell small portions, or ‘participaciones’, of that ticket to their patrons for €1.
Every year the Christmas lottery releases a suitably schmaltzy advert. This year’s could be the most heart-warming yet and has catapulted its animated star, Justino, to fame in Spain (he even has his own Instagram account!)
The animated advert, in the same style as Pixar’s Up, follows Justino, a lonely night watchman in a mannequin factory. He spends his long night shifts all alone, never seeing his daytime colleagues. His only company is the dozens of mannequins in the factory. In a heartwarming twist the commercial ends with a Christmas lottery win for the factory staff and a surprise for the solitary watchman.
The night itself
Every 22nd December the streets of Spain are silent as everyone huddles round their televisions to watch the El Gordo lottery draw, an affair which can take over three hours.
The balls are drawn in a unique way befitting the unique lottery tradition, while the numbers are sung by the pupils of Madrid’s San Ildefonso school. The school was originally a home for orphans and the tradition of the winners of El Gordo donating a portion of their winnings to San Ildefonso dates from this time.
The balls were originally only drawn by boys, with the first girl taking part in the big draw singalong in 1984. Audience members at the live draw, as well as viewers watching from home, are known to dress up in lottery-themed clothing and hats. On the stage itself are two spherical vessels, one containing balls embossed with the numbers found on the lottery tickets and the other featuring the associated prizes in euros.
“Ball number 20.456 gets €20,000!” they might sing. This goes on, the tension rising until, at some point in the live broadcast, the €4-million ball is drawn making the numbered ball drawn alongside it El Gordo.
Pupils from San Ildefonso school sing the lottery numbers on December 22nd. Photo: AFP
In 2011 the tiny Spanish village of Sodeto famously won El Gordo, with all but one of its 250 inhabitants having bought a lottery ticket. The unlucky loser was a Greek resident who lived on the edge of town and failed to buy a ticket because he did not realize just how big the Christmas lottery was. The winners each claimed a share of €120 million, with people collecting sums ranging from €100,000 to €1 million each.
This was the first time in El Gordo’s 200 year history that one entire village had won the prize, but it is not uncommon for many people in the same location to all win at the same time, given lottery shops are often assigned the full complement of a given number.
The 2014 ‘El Gordo’ winning lottery number. Photo: José Jordan/AFP
Crisis-hit Spain taxed the lottery for the first time in 2013, with the Spanish government hitting the headlines for the 20% tax imposed on prizes over €2,500 in the much-loved lottery. The Christmas lottery is also not immune to scams. Madrid’s city council recently warned people to buy their tickets only from authorized vendors, and not to believe emails telling them they had won prizes.
Last but not least, the council warned people to keep their ticket safe as losing them makes claiming prizes very difficult indeed.
First published in 2015 by The Local