Monday, November 04, 2002

You know the holiday season is coming up in Spain when you see, in the neighborhood shops and bars, participations in the Christmas lottery for sale. The Spanish Christmas lottery, known as "El Gordo" (The Big One), is supposedly the biggest single lottery draw in the world, in the sense that it distributes the most money. It's also supposed to be the lottery that returns the highest percentage of the takings in the payoffs. A décimo in the lottery costs 20 euros, and there are 66,000 numbers. The payoff for the Fat One is 200,000 euros per decimo, 10,000 times what you paid for your ticket. There are lots of very appetizing smaller prizes. You're not the only person holding your number; many other people, quite likely thousands, are certainly holding it. Décimos are traditionally bought up by civic groups (the block Christmas lighting commission, the fiesta mayor association, choral groups, football fan clubs, and the like) and then divided up into much smaller participaciones which are resold door-to-door and in shops and bars. A 20% surcharge is added to benefit the group in question. So, for example, the local choral group is selling one-euro participations for one euro twenty. If you buy a ticket you're helping them out and taking a little flyer on the lottery as well. Most people buy several different participations and perhaps a whole décimo or two as well, all of different numbers, so you're riding several different horses, as it were. It is not unusual for people to buy fifty or a hundred bucks' worth of tickets, or more. We usually wind up with twenty-five dollars or so "invested".

December 22 is the day of the prize draw every year, and the numbers themselves are selected by, get this, blind children from a special school in Madrid; that, we suppose, is about as innocent as a hand can get. The whole country spends all morning watching the drawing on TV, and by the time of the afternoon news on TV the Big One has been drawn along with all the other prizes. The newspapers come out with special editions and everyone is checking his participations. The fun part is that the prize money is widely spread around since most people hold very small stakes in the number, just a couple of euros or so, and so the probably thousands of holders collect twenty or thirty or forty thousand euros each--ten thousand times the money they put in. The holders are concentrated in the one town or neighborhood where the number was distributed in the local shop or bar, so if you win, you and everybody you know are rather better off but not life-changingly rich. The TV networks immediately send their reporters to wherever the Big One and the several second, third, fourth and fifth prizes have fallen and film joyous small crowds jumping around and drinking cava. The clichés, repeated every year, are that the Big One ha caído en un barrio popular (it landed in a working-class neighborhood) and that the prize money has been muy repartido (widely shared). And then it's Christmas, so if you won it's a very nice one and if you didn't win, you forget about it in a hurry.

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