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Spain's Christmas lottery is still "El Gordo"

In tough times, Spaniards trim trees, just not their lottery ticket purchases.

Antonio Deus kisses Sara Fernandez after winning in Spain's El Gordo, or "the fat one," lottery in Carballo, northern Spain, Dec. 22, 2007. Spain's "El Gordo," the world's biggest lottery, gave out 2.2 billion euros (or $3.2 billion) in Christmas prizes that year. (Miguel Vidal/Reuters)

MADRID, Spain — On the morning of Dec. 22, Spain will be glued to radios and TV sets. A monotonous chant of children’s voices will float through the air of homes, cafeterias and offices for hours.

It is the lyrical event of the season, a kickoff to Christmas celebrations. Children dressed up in navy blue and gray uniforms sing, not Christmas carols, but the winning numbers and prizes for the Loteria de Navidad, Spain’s state Christmas lottery.

At one point, the intoning of this mantra will break slightly with emotion, Spaniards will hold their breath and hearts will skip a beat in expectation as the little ball bearing “El Gordo” (the fat one) is drawn. The grand prize amounts to 3 million euros, or almost $4.5 million.

A decimo, a tenth of a ticket, is the smallest unit officially sold. It costs 20 euros. The Christmas Lottery is the state lottery distributing the largest number of prizes: more than 26 million totaling 2.3 billion euros. The winning ratio for El Gordo is 15,000 euros to a purchased euro. Family members, friends and colleagues share participaciones — they buy decimos together and make photocopies so everybody knows the group’s number.

Folks who shun any form of wagering the rest of the year give in at Christmas when lottery tickets read like holiday season liturgy. Coworkers buy into a number together; gym partners purchase another; then there is the number displayed on a large sign next to the alcohol beverages that can be bought at the corner bar; the number available for purchase at the drycleaners … There is a sense of community in sharing the same number amongst one's nearest and dearest.

Economic crisis and job loss do little to deflate the spirit. Christmas lottery sales suffered only a 3-percent drop last year.