My powers of predicting the future are normally in the range of slim to non-existent but I can foretell what the main news will be here in Spain tomorrow, December 22, 2014. For this day is the day of the Spanish Christmas Lottery and unless the crashing of a meteor into planet Earth knocks this event off the headlines, talk will be of nothing more than where and by whom the big prizes have been won. The lottery draw will be televised on multiple channels from early morning onwards and upon its completion hundreds of TV news crews will stalk the country searching for crowds of jubilant winners — the quite literally nouveau riche!
The Spanish Christmas Lottery is the Texas of lotteries; everything about it is bathed in superlatives. It’s the biggest in the world (€2.5 billion [$3.0 billion] prize money) and has been running continuously since 1812. It’s definitely the most hyped up and, without doubt, the most complicated. So complicated, in fact, that my dedication to my readership does not stretch to yours truly making the superhuman effort to understand its workings. Take it from me, there is no one alive who fully grasps how the process of balls being drawn from rotating golden drums ends in people dancing in the street and cracking open the champagne (or more correctly, cava). All I know is that there are multiple series, the main prize (€4 million; $4.89 million) is called el Gordo (the fat one) and to find out if you’ve won (or not) you give your addled brain a rest and take the ticket to your nearest lottery outlet where an all-knowing barcode scanner hits you with the good or bad news; you don’t run the risk of overheating your delicate cerebral cortex by trying to work out if your ticket belongs to this winning series or that or if the dratted slip of paper is a “tenth” or a “twentieth” or whether the final two numbers (not the series numbers but the number numbers!) mean you land the consolation prize of a fiver or tenner. It really is that complicated.
In this aspect, the Spanish Christmas Lottery is as authentically Spanish as Cervantes, flamenco, bullfighting, tortilla de patata and all the rest of it: baroque in its conception and organisation, unnecessarily difficult and over-elaborate, but also engineered to bring people together and provide an excuse to party. Just about the only thing I do understand about the Lottery is that it is designed to throw up large of amounts of medium-sized winners. It seems as if the billions of euro of winnings touch almost everyone in the country (nothing to do with everyone buying hundreds of tickets, of course — participation is estimated to be 80%). The tickets are sold as series. Thus, a bar or newspaper stand or workplace social club sells tenths or twentieths of a particular series to its regulars. Just say that this series wins one of the big prizes. Everyone with a share is suddenly thirty, forty, fifty grand richer. Not life-changing quantities but nice all the same. What you then get by around tea time on the day of the draw is the spectacle of the winning clients of the above bar, for example, cracking open the cava, hugging each other, crying, dancing, singing and telling their bosses to get stuffed — all on live TV. I guarantee the main evening news tomorrow will consist of nothing more than the announcer switching between scenes such as those described above from all four corners of Spain (unless, of course the Horsemen of the Apocalypse do indeed decide to spoil the party).
For me the most curious aspect of the Lottery is the draw itself. The balls are taken from a pair of ornate metal drums by children, one of whom proceeds to “sing” the first ball’s number to the assembled audience and TV cameras while the other responds with a similar musical rendition of its corresponding prize money . Yes folks, digit-trilling kids form one of the centrepieces of a gambling enterprise the likes of which is illegal in many states and most likely considered a sin by many of the world’s major religions! Children drawing the numbers for the national lottery wouldn’t happen in Norway, but hell, they probably don’t even have a lottery anyway! The Lottery used to be even less politically correct: the kids used to be orphans. Nowadays they are just regular kids but still come from the same Colegio de San Ildefonso as a couple of centuries ago. For a child to be chosen it is considered an honour and they become minor celebrities for a couple of days. Spain is different!