The Spanish Christmas Lottery one of the most famous lotteries in the world, Learn more about the Christmas drawing (Sorteo de Navidad).
The Spanish National Lottery is one of the most widely played games of chance in Spain. The tradition, which dates back to 18th century, is deeply rooted in Spanish culture.
King Carlos III brought the lottery to Spain from Naples, which was a type of drawing related to what is known today as the Lotería Primitiva; the first drawing was held in 1763.
In 1811, in the city of Cadiz, the modern lottery was created as it is know today in the hopes of increasing state revenue for the public tax authority. This modern lottery was initiated in 1812 in Cadiz. On February 28, 1814 the lottery drawing was held in Madrid for the first time, a city that has since become the center for Spanish National Lottery drawings.
National Lottery tickets are official documents, like bank notes, and counterfeiting them is a criminal offense punishable by law. A lottery ticket, similar to a bank note, belongs to the bearer, meaning the person holding the ticket is considered its proprietor.
Of all the different National Lottery drawings, the special Christmas drawing is without doubt the most popular in Spain. The famous Spanish lottery is always held on December 22, and in a certain sense, it marks the beginning of Christmas festivities for Spaniards. The most important prize here is known as el gordo (“the big one”, or literally “the fat one”). Although the el gordo prize is not economically greater than prizes awarded for other types of National Lottery winning tickets, it is the most desired prize to win. The importance of the prize has even produced Spanish language expressions such as tocarle el gordo a alguien (to win el gordo) alluding to the notion of unexpectedly obtaining something very desirable by luck.
The Christmas Lottery, as with all Spanish lotteries, pays out 70% of earnings in prizes. El Gordo has a value of 4,000,000 € per whole ticket. Since 2011, 100,000 numbers ranging from 00000 to 99999 are played in the Christmas drawing. Each number is divided into a series (with 195 series per number) and each series is divided into tenth shares, called décimos, which cost 20 € each, with a whole ticket costing 200 €.
El Gordo de Navidad is such an important social phenomenon, that even people that do not make a regular habit of playing the lottery often do participate in this special drawing. This is the drawing that offers tickets for the longest amount of time; Christmas Lottery whole tickets or décimos are available for purchase as early as July. It is also common for people to create shares known as participations, dividing the cost of the ticket into small amounts worth only a few cents, and then offering them as gifts to customers in places such as produce stores or fish markets.
The Christmas Lottery drawing is something of a show in itself. On December 22nd, at 8:00 in the morning, many TV and radio stations air the drawing live. This takes place in the Nation Lottery hall in Madrid. Winning numbers are chosen by a traditional system involving two enormous lottery drums. One of these drums contains 99,999 small wooden balls each numbered by laser –instead of paint as the paint’s weight could affect drawing probabilities. These balls measure nearly 19mm in diameter and weigh 3 grams each. Next to the drum containing the numbers sits the prize drum, with 1,807 balls that make up all the prizes to be awarded in the drawing.
The balls are handled and watched over in the strictest of confidence. These are presented to the public a day before the drawing for its approval. Three people are responsible for a complex security system that protects the event from unfair tampering.
The Spanish lottery hall is opened on December 22nd at 8:00 to spectators that fill the venue. Some arrive sporting special lottery clothing, others just arrive with tickets and décimos in pocket. At 8:30, the drawing committee presiding over the event is given authorization to act as such. Then, the balls are transported via chute and mechanically dropped into the drums. Once the balls are inside, the drums are closed and simultaneously rotated.
About a half an hour later, the drawing itself begins when a child from the S. Ildefonso school (the school responsible for preparing children to sing out these numbers and prizes) takes the first ball, and sings out its number, at which point a classmate goes on to sing out the corresponding prize. The balls are then placed on a wire frame, and when this is full of balls, the drum is spun again and the process repeats. Two hundred balls from each class make up a table. When a table is completed, the children are relieved. The process continues until a prize appears, prompting the child with the prize ball to signal to a classmate, by use of a gesture, to sing out the number in a higher octave than a normal number would call for… This produces a commotion in the drawing hall as suspense builds in the hopes that el Gordo will be called.
The Spanish lottery drawing of the final prize ball marks the end of event. Tables formed by pairs of balls with the number and corresponding prizes remain on public display six more days. After this time, the balls will be collected, counted and stored for the following drawing to be held using the traditional system.
In the newspapers and on television and radio news programs, the story of the day always contains the same features: smiling faces of lucky big prize winners getting sprayed with cava (a Spanish sparkling wine) in some part of Spain. Those not-so-lucky observers will have to wait until the following year to try their luck again at winning el Gordo. Hope is the last thing to be lost, and the most heard line on the afternoon of December 22nd is always: “oh well, at least we have our good health”.