The Spanish Christmas Lottery is much more than just a lottery draw, it’s an annual fiesta! In Spain it's actually an integral part of the holiday season – another opportunity to spend a special day with family and friends!
Every December 22nd Spanish lottery lovers wear their finest clothes, or, as in times past, even don fancy dress, before gathering to watch the live televised Spanish Christmas Lottery draw, each player hoping that they hold one of those coveted El Gordo prize-winning tickets.
Whether they win or lose, the true appeal of the Spanish Christmas Lottery to most Spanish people is just the excuse to spend time with friends and loved ones during the holidays season. In fact surveys have shown that an incredible 90% of the Spanish population participate in the Christmas Lottery every December!
The Christmas lottery draw is an all-day (and often all-night) event for Spaniards. It is the culmination of over two hundred years of tradition, with plenty of ceremony and pageantry attached. Plus there's the excitement and anticipation as the entire nation holds its breath to find out which localities El Gordo will visit this year.
The Spanish Christmas Lottery has followed roughly the same procedure since the very first draw was held on December 18th, 1812, in the westernmost city of Cadiz. Although traditionally the El Gordo draw has always been held in the capital, Madrid.
Tickets sales for the Spanish Christmas Lottery 2016 are already on sale both online and offline for the December 22nd draw. Although players can theoretically still buy tickets for the Christmas lottery until 17:00 CET/14:00 GMT on December 21st most ticket sellers in Spain will have long sold out already.
When you play the Spanish Christmas Lottery online, however, this isn’t a concern however since all tickets are digital you can pick whichever numbers you like right up to 30 minutes before the draw!
Traditionally in the months leading up to the Christmas lottery draw, tickets will be bought from official Loteria Nacional offices, kiosks, tavernas, bars, street sellers, supermarkets and many other licensed locations around Spain.
Although some people buy full tickets or "billetes" most Spaniards prefer to buy "decimos", or 1/10th shares in tickets with different groups of friends, family, colleagues, teammates, club members and more. The more decimos one has in different groups the more chance they have of winning and shares also makes the Christmas lottery more affordable to people who don’t want to buy a full ticket.
You can also buy even smaller portions called "participations", although these are not as common and are most often bought as small Christmas gifts by organizations and businesses and then divided amongst their members, employees or even customers.
When playing online you can buy full tickets, half-tickets, quarter-tickets, decimos and smaller participations even if you don’t have anyone to play with.
Spanish families will usually have breakfast together on the morning of the draw and get prepared for the afternoon’s festivities. People will often don their best clothes or put on fancy dress and congregate in living rooms, restaurants, tavernas and town halls to watch the live televised draw.
The Spanish Christmas lottery draw uses two rotating spheres, one large and one small. The large sphere contains 100,000 small wooden lottery balls marked from 00000 to 99999, one for each of the available five-digit number ticket combinations. The smaller sphere contains a varying number of balls depending on the number of tickets sold and the resulting prize pool (for example in 2012 there was 1,807 balls), each marked with a corresponding amount of prize money, ranging from the 1797 "La Pedrea" (literally translated as 'the pebble avalanche') worth €1,000 each to the El Gordo jackpot prize worth €4,000,000. Members of the public have the right to examine the balls before the draw to ensure that their numbers have been included in the barrels. All of the lottery numbers are now inscribed by laser in order to dispel rumours that certain balls are more or less likely to appear because of the amount of paint they had on their surface.
The Spanish Christmas Lottery was originally created in 1812 to fund the San Ildefonso Orphanage in Madrid. Over the years it became a tradition for two orphans from San Ildefonso to take part in the proceedings by singing the results, as it was believed that the orphans would be less susceptible to bribes or cheating. The Christmas Lottery has grown and changed a great deal over the past 200 years - the revenue generated is now used to fund all types of government projects and San Ildefonso is no longer an orphanage but a school. Nonetheless the students attending San Ildefonso have carried on in their role as official number singers and it is perhaps this feature that the Spanish Christmas Lottery is best known for internationally.
One child will sing the winning number while the other sings the corresponding prize in Euros. Because it takes 3 hours or more to go through all of the balls the children now alternate in shifts. When one of the major prizes is drawn the children will sing the results several times and show the winning balls to a special committee for verification. The children who are lucky enough to sing the big prizes will become temporary celebrities since virtually all of Spain watches the live TV broadcast. It is still traditional for winners of the El Gordo jackpot and other big prizes to donate a portion of their win to the San Ildefonso School.
Of course the climax of the evening happens when the El Gordo prize gets drawn and the audience in attendance erupts in applause. Because tickets are sold in series across Spain it is common for villages and neighbourhoods in larger cities to buy tickets for most of their members. When they win the El Gordo prizes it creates the unique situation where whole villages or groups of neighbours become millionaires together. In fact, certain parts of Spain are considered lucky and others not, depending on how often they win the Spanish Christmas Lottery and a big El Gordo pay out is considered a sign of luck for the community in the coming year. Back in 2011 the entire town of Grañén, Huesca won El Gordo, giving many of its 2,000 inhabitants an unforgettable Christmas gift. Overall, around 1,200 people shared a total of €700,000,000, making Grañén instantly the richest town in all of Spain!
After the draw, partying and festivities often continue well into the night, and even the following day as winners celebrate with champagne. Those who did not win a prize that year are traditionally consoled with a traditional proverb translating to 'your health is what really matters'. And for players who didn’t win on the Spanish Christmas Lottery there is still one more chance. The Sorteo de El Niño is a second, albeit smaller, lottery draw which is held before the feast of the Epiphany of Jesus on January 6th, where it is traditional for players who did not win or who just won the price of their ticket back, to re-invest in another chance at a prize.