The Christmas Lottery

Apart from turrón, polvorones and TV specials with A-list celebrities from the world of music (the story goes that they record these shows in August), the most typical tradition in Spain during Christmas is the Sorteo Extraordinario (‘extraordinary draw’). Although you might be acquainted with this already: lottery tickets for this draw are sold as early as the summer, and these days every TV station runs advertisements for the event.

National legislative assembly (Cadiz, 1812)

National legislative assembly (Cadiz, 1812)

But, since when is there so much enthusiasm , understandable as it might be, for getting very rich very easily during the most consumerist season of the year? We have to go back almost 200 years, all the way to 1812, to find out, and suddenly we find ourselves in Cadiz. It is only a few weeks since the Napoleonic troops lifted their siege and, consequently, optimism runs wild, as does hardship. Hence, the time is right to create a lottery draw to lift the spirits of the population and to, by the by, top up the impoverished public funds. Sure enough, on December 18 the draw of the “modern lottery” (called that to distinguish it from the “primitive lottery” established by Charles III in 1771) is organised.

It would not be until 1892, however, that the event came to be known as the “Christmas draw”. Apparently, the nickname given to it, the Gordo, or “fat one”, stems from this time, too. There are several theories about the origin of the name: some believe it is due to the enormous size of the lottery drum that contained the balls with the numbered tickets; others believe the name to come from the huge sum of money that was given out as prize (usually the largest prize in the whole year); and a third theory, popular among those who like to foster unusual tales, holds that its nickname derives from a character who lived in Madrid towards the end of the XIX century, who was overweight, whose name was Ricardo, and who would reserve lottery tickets for people who were too busy to collect them personally. The story goes that his touch would make tickets lucky, and hence the saying me ha tocado el Gordo (‘I’ve been touched by the fat one’, which can also mean ‘I’ve drawn the fat one’).

Children from the Colegio San Ildefonso reading the prizes

Children from the Colegio San Ildefonso reading the prizes

The draw has not changed much since: it takes place in the hall of the Loterías del Estado or at the Palacio de Congresos in Madrid (the location does change), where two drums are stationed, a gigantic one with the numbers of the draw, and a slightly smaller one, with the prizes. The two drums turn simultaneously, and each releases a ball, rendering a prize (the minimum prize is 1,000 euro) that corresponds to the specific number of the ticket sold. This ‘pairing’ is then recorded by the authorities.

The children from the Colegio San Ildefonso, in Madrid, are in charge of reading out the prizes. They read out, or, rather, sing, the numbers (free of any evil or corrupt inclinations as they are) not only for the Christmas lottery but also for the weekly draws throughout the year. They have always done it efficiently, and proof of it is that they have fulfilled this role since the times of the “primitive lottery”, back in 1776. Needless to say, they are not the same children now as they were then.

The draw starts towards 9:15 am, and it usually lasts three and a half hour (until the moment the drum with the prizes is emptied). The country is practically brought to a total standstill throughout this period of time, everyone follows the action, whether on the TV, on the radio or, these days, online, to make sure they know if their number were included among the winners. Three and a half hours of tension that could radically change your life! No wonder people celebrate in style if they get the Gordo; or, for that matter, that, once it is known where the winning tickets were sold, TV units from all broadcasters in Spain are sent in that direction. Are we happy for the new millionaires, or do we envy them? We are not certain, but on December 22 newsreels forget all about politics and developments in order to devote their time almost exclusively to the prizes, the winners and their anecdotes.

Christmas Lottery Ticket

Christmas Lottery Ticket

But what about the great majority of people, who have won nothing at all? In good spirits, everyone wishes everyone else good health, given that becoming obscenely rich is no longer an option. Therefore, unofficially, December 22 is known as the ‘Day of Good Health’.

That is how goals, illusions and dreams get together on a single day, on the Sorteo de Navidad, which has outlived even the harshest of tragedies: from 1936 to 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, the draw was still conducted. That tells you everything there is to know about its meaning to us.

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