Spain's Christmas lottery is still "El Gordo"

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.

Lottery decimos and participaciones are also gifts, particularly among family members. Brides and grooms give their wedding guests the present of a decimo, the number coinciding with their wedding date, as a memento, explained Concha Corona, manager of Dona Manolita, a lottery administration founded in 1931.

Lottery numbers hold a magic power in Spaniards’ imagination, and so does the place to purchase a ticket. By the end of October, Spaniards are already lining up all day long to buy at the classic downtown establishment of Dona Manolita.

“People come from all over the country to buy here,” Corona explained with pride. “And beyond. Germans and British ask family members living in Spain to buy them tickets.” The late Dona Manolita, founder of the administration, used to travel with suitcases full of tickets to sell them in La Toja, a spa town in the northern coast of Galicia where she vacationed, according to Corona. Tickets can now be bought through the store’s website and shipped — but only within Spain. They are divisas — i.e. Spanish currency — that, in theory, cannot be taken out of the country.

Natural disasters are a draw for lottery shoppers. Floods in Sueca, Valencia, in September 2008, delivered a watershed of lottery ticket sales in that town come December, according to Las Provincias, a local media. Superstition fuels a belief that providence will compensate catastrophes with good luck in the Christmas lottery.

Madrid will not host the Olympic Games in 2016, but that, and the expectation that the capital city will bid for 2020, make those numbers this year’s favorites. Another standout is Michael Jackson's death date: 25609. And a number that's already sold out, according to Corona, is 1918. What happened in 1918? The Spanish flu pandemic killed millions of people in the world.

There are Spaniards who stay faithful to the same number all their lives. Others resort to death for fortune: a female client of Dona Manolita’s bought a decimo whose figures coincided with the day and the hospital bed number in which her mother-in-law had passed away. Clients generally prefer numbers ending in 5, 7 and 9; 13 is also a popular pick.

Spain’s first state lottery was created by King Charles III in 1763. The singing kids, known as the “ninos de San Ildefonso,” have been drawing and intoning the winning numbers since 1771. They are students of San Ildefonso, an orphans’ school founded in Madrid in 1543.

Primetime news on Dec. 22 will dedicate a good part of their airtime to show images of winners jumping and crying in happiness, showering themselves with cava, Spanish sparkling wine. Next morning, the El Gordo number and the photo of the pair of San Ildefonso kids who sang it will be the headlines in the media. For most Spaniards at home, in cafeterias and the office, it will be “health day” — “We didn’t win the lottery, but good health is what matters.”