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Spain's Christmas lottery is still "El Gordo"

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

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.”