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El Gordo: Everything you need to know about Spain's Christmas lottery

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El Gordo: Everything you need to know about Spain's Christmas lottery
Winners celebrate at a lottery outlet in Malaga in 2017. Photo: AFP
12:40 CET+01:00
If you're puzzled by all the long queues on streets around Spain in the lead-up to Christmas, then wonder no more. Welcome to Spain's unique 'El Gordo' (the Fat one) lottery, the richest in the world.

Every year at Christmas, Spaniards go lottery mad, queuing for hours to buy tickets for the famous Christmas lottery and this year it is bigger than ever.

The 2018 prize money will total €2.38 billion, with the top prize of €680 million known as El Gordo (the Fat One), being shared between all those with the winning numbers. It works out as a top prize of €400,000 per decimo (more on that later). 

The second prize per decimo is €125,000 and the third is €50,000.

Then there are two fourth prizes (€20,000 per decimo), eight fifth prizes (€6,000 per decimo) and 1,794 prizes of €100 per decimo. 

In all there will be 170 million decimos up for sale in total.

2014's winning number - "El Gordo". Photo: AFP

With the odds of winning at least something put at one in six, no wonder the Christmas lottery has a whole nation gripped. According to the 2016 stats, some 75.9 percent of the 34 million Spanish residents aged between 18 and 75 play the Spanish Christmas lottery.

Spain's state lottery estimates that in 2018 each Spaniard will spend, on average, €67.56 on Christmas lottery tickets, that's €1.4 more than in 2017.

The biggest spenders are in Castilla y Leon where the average spent by each resident is €104,02, those who spend least are in the enclaves of Melilla (€14.16) and Ceuta (14.53) followed by the Balearics where the average spend is €41.53.

History

El Gordo is a Spanish institution and the second oldest lottery in the world. The first Christmas lottery took place on 22nd December 1812 in Cádiz and the event has been taking place on the same day every year since.


Behind the counter is Doña Manolita, owner of one of the most famous lottery shops in Spain.

Not even the Spanish Civil War could stop the Christmas lottery, which moved to Valencia when the Republican government had to relocate their capital from Madrid.

After the war, the lottery moved back to Madrid and continued under the regime of the dictator Francisco Franco.

How it works 

Because so many people in Spain take part in El Gordo, the ticketing system is complicated.

Unlike in the UK, for example, you don’t go into a newsagent and shade in the numbers you want on your lottery card. Instead, lottery shops have certain numbers available. 

This is why the big winners of the Christmas Lottery are usually from the same area: many people have bought tickets from the same shop which holds all the winning tickets.

This assigning of numbers to certain shops means if you want to 'play' a particular number, you might have to travel quite a way — or buy your tickets online.

It's also possible to track down where to buy your preferred number using online search tools like this one.


Photo: The queue for lottery tickets from Doña Manolita lottery shop, Madrid. Photo: Sara Houlison. 

In terms of prizes, because so many people take part, numbers are repeated up to 165 times. That means if you do win El Gordo, you will be sharing your prize with at least 164 others. This explains why the top individual prize in the biggest lottery in the world comes in at a 'mere' €4 million.

One ticket (billete) costs a whopping €200, but many people choose to buy a tenth of a ticket (un décimo) for €20. Even smaller portions of tickets are sold: it is common for businesses to buy a ticket then sell small portions, or 'participaciones', of that ticket to their patrons for €1.

Where to buy them

You can purchase a ticket in a lottery shop but they are also available at local bars, restaurants and through syndicates at work places, social clubs etc.  You can also purchase them online.

Sometimes it means shelling out for several just so you are not left out of the group in case of a win! 

Tickets are on sale in the shops until 10pm on December 21st or online until 11.45pm.

The advert 

Every year the Christmas lottery releases a suitably schmaltzy advert.

This year the Christmas Lottery spot emulates “Groundhog Day” with grumpy key cutter Juan reliving the day of December 22 – the day of the lottery draw. The protagonist soon clocks on how to maximise his winnings and each day he becomes more tired and disillusioned celebrating his wealth alone. It is only when he shares a ticket with a down-on-her-luck stranger that he finds true joy and can move on. The moral of the story comes with the strapline: “The biggest prize is to share it”.
 
 

The night itself 

Every 22nd December the streets of Spain are silent as everyone huddles round their televisions to watch the El Gordo lottery draw, an affair which can take over three hours.

The balls are drawn in a unique way befitting the unique lottery tradition, while the numbers are sung by the pupils of Madrid's San Ildefonso school.

The school was originally a home for orphans and the tradition of the winners of El Gordo donating a portion of their winnings to San Ildefonso dates from this time.

The balls were originally only drawn by boys, with the first girl taking part in the big draw singalong in 1984. Audience members at the live draw, as well as viewers watching from home, are known to dress up in lottery-themed clothing and hats.

On the stage itself are two spherical vessels, one containing balls embossed with the numbers found on the lottery tickets and the other featuring the associated prizes in euros.  

"Ball number 20.456 gets €20,000!” they might sing. This goes on, the tension rising until, at some point in the live broadcast, the €4-million ball is drawn making the numbered ball drawn alongside it El Gordo.


Pupils from San Ildefonso school sing the lottery numbers on December 22nd. Photo: AFP

The winners

In 2011 the tiny Spanish village of Sodeto famously won El Gordo, with all but one of its 250 inhabitants having bought a lottery ticket. The unlucky loser was a Greek resident who lived on the edge of town and failed to buy a ticket because he did not realize just how big the Christmas lottery was. 

The winners each claimed a share of €120 million, with people collecting sums ranging from €100,000 to €1 million each.

This was the first time in El Gordo’s 200 year history that one entire village had won the prize, but it is not uncommon for many people in the same location to all win at the same time, given lottery shops are often assigned the full complement of a given number.


The 2014 'El Gordo' winning lottery number. Photo: José Jordan/AFP

Are the winnings tax free?

Crisis-hit Spain taxed the lottery for the first time in 2013, with the Spanish government hitting the headlines for the 20 percent tax imposed on prizes over €2,500 in the much-loved lottery.

Now that limit has been raised to €10,000 tax free on each winning ticket, meaning the winner of a top prize decimo will get the first €10,000 of the €400,000 tax free and pay 20 percent tax on the rest - a take home of €320,000.

Warnings:

The Christmas lottery is also not immune to scams. Madrid's city council warns people to buy their tickets only from authorized vendors, and not to believe emails telling them they had won prizes.

Last but not least, the council warns people to keep their ticket safe as losing them makes claiming prizes very difficult indeed.

And there is lots of advice on how to ensure that there's is no argument between friends sharing a winning ticket. Best idea is to take a photo of the number, share it on whatsapp with each other and the terms written underneath, that way there can be no argument later.

This is an updated version of a 2015 article by Jessica Jones / The Local

READ MORE: Why a Christmas drinks advert has all of Spain sobbing 

 
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