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Spain’s El Gordo Lottery

by Dee Andrews

The man at the folding table was there each morning in front of the bar as I walked past on my way to Spanish class. At first I paid him little attention, but as he was faithfully there each day, I eventually noticed that he was selling lottery tickets. The window advertised, “Jugamos con el numero 34802,” though my Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand much outside the number. He was there month after month, and I noticed, as Christmas approached, more people stopping to buy.

‘Twas the season in Spain.

December 22nd marks the annual Spanish Christmas Lottery or Sorteo de Navidad, otherwise known as El Gordo, The Fat One. The lottery, which dates back to 1812, is considered the world’s oldest and biggest, the biggest payout that is. This year, December 22, 2009, a total €2.3 billion was paid out, with the 1,950 fat winners each taking home €300,000, or about $430,000.

El Gordo is designed so as many people as possible win in time for the holidays. When buying tickets people have the choice of buying a whole ticket or a fraction of the ticket, usually a tenth. This structure encourages families, friends and co-workers to join together to buy a ticket while clubs, shops and bars sell shares in tickets to patrons.

The lottery kicks off the holiday season in Spain and is a huge social event. Nearly the entire country participates, and the day of the drawing many Spaniards find an excuse to leave work and watch the unfolding drama in bars and restaurants. The three hour drawing is televised nationally with pupils of Saint Ildefonso school in Madrid singing out the numbers as small wooden balls are drawn. It is a custom for winners to share with the school, originally an orphanage in Madrid.

Ticket for El Gordo, courtesy of Madrid Man.

Ticket for El Gordo, courtesy of Madrid Man.

By December 22 last year, I had learned enough Spanish to buy my own share in a ticket and I knew the sign said, “We’re playing with number 34802.” The atmosphere in the bar was lively, smoke swirling amongst the port town’s locals. I found a table near the action on the television. The numbers were sung out, the patrons mumbling, “Esto es la salud que importa,” consoling themselves with their good health as their number wasn’t called.

I saw the man from the folding table at the end of the bar. He finished his beer and walked outside to his table, methodically lining tickets up for El Niño, the second most important Christmas lottery in Spain, held two weeks later to honor The Three Kings and the end to the holiday season.

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