In many countries, a battle is raging over whether 24 or 25 December is the real Christmas. A battle between capitalists and Christians that is being waged with particular ferocity this year. Some want to die for last-minute shopping, others for singing in church.
The Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe are known to take their time and don’t celebrate until January 7, leaving more time for cutting Christmas trees and baking cookies.
One country, however, is completely out of line: Spain, ostensibly a Catholic country, celebrates its Christmas on 22 December.
If you are wondering “Why the hurry? What’s the rush?”, let me tell you that the Christmas rush starts as early as July. That’s when the tickets for the big celebration go on sale.
In every church I visited in Andalusia, someone tried to sell me tickets. First at the entrance, then came the sacristan, finally the priest. All of them: “Do you already have a ticket for Christmas?”
At first I answered, truthfully, that I would no longer be in Spain by Christmas. That didn’t lead to any slowing of the sales effort: “It doesn’t matter, it will be televised live.”
I didn’t understand why I should buy tickets for something I could watch on TV for free. At some point, it became too insistent, and I changed my excuse: “Oh, thank you very much, but I already have a ticket.”
That should get me off the hook, I thought.
But far from it: “Buy another one!”, I was encouraged.
An invitation apparently followed by the whole country, as the long lines in front of the sales points demonstrate.
At some point, I understood that in Spain, Christmas is not celebrated with trees, presents and food, but with gambling. Christmas in Spain is synonymous with the lottery.
And everyone has to participate! “Have you already got your lottery tickets?”, I was asked again and again, even by friends who didn’t want to sell me anything.
To avoid getting into discussions, I simply said: “Yes.”
But that’s when the questions really started: “What number do you have?”
“Why is that important?” I wondered.
I mean, I understand the principle of a lottery and that the number is important for winning. But I don’t understand why my lottery number would be of interest to others.
“Well, maybe we have the same number!” the friends exclaimed enthusiastically, as if that meant some kind of blood brotherhood.
A lottery selling tickets with the same number multiple times? That seemed like a scam. Maybe that’s how the Spanish Civil War had been triggered, when one day, two people with the same numbers came to collect the grand prize.
But then, I was enlightened:
The Spanish Christmas Lottery, proudly existing since 1812 and not interrupted by world or civil wars, nor by flu waves unfairly named after the country, is the largest, most important, most valuable and the most superlativest lottery in the world. Every Christmas, several billion (!) euros are played out.
But, tradition is tradition, the tickets may only have five digits. Thus, there are only 100,000 possible ticket numbers (from 00000 to 99999). A bit few for a country with 47 million people, because after all, every citizen wants at least one lottery ticket.
Other countries would switch to six- or seven-digit ticket numbers, but Spain is more creative: They print the same ticket numbers multiple times. And if the ticket wins, you split the winnings. It’s that simple. Sharing is fun!
Stop! That’s how it works in stingy countries, like in Germany. In Spain, on the other hand, where social justice is a constitutional priority, multiple winning tickets mean that every ticket holder gets the full prize. Here, there is no division, there is multiplication, as if we were living in the country of the magic money tree.
And since the lottery company belongs to the government, the state simply finances any deficit. Now you know why Spain has just secured 140 billion euros from the EU Corona reconstruction fund. Although I think there are always enough tickets sold to fill the pot sufficiently. Last year, each number was issued 170 times, for a total of 17 million tickets.
Because now it gets really complicated. I had to have this explained to me three times, in order to be able to describe it to you to some extent. But all information is subject to error!
Because 17 million tickets are still not enough for 47 million people, the tickets are divided. And not internally or by secret agreements, but they are chopped up in the truest meaning of the word. The lottery company has no objections to this, but offers each ticket number in each series as a sheet with ten coupons, which can be torn off and bought and sold individually.
However, the profits attributable to these coupons, unlike the profits attributable to the same numbers in different series, are then divided according to this formula:
In Spain, many pocket calculators are sold before Christmas.
In return for having to share the profit, each coupon costs only a tenth of the price of a whole ticket. This is very considerate, because a whole lottery ticket costs a steep 200 euros, which no one can afford. So, someone buys the whole sheet and resells nine tenth-coupon tickets. That’s why you’re approached at the train station, in the park, while washing your hands, at the airport, at police checkpoints, and especially in every bar, asking if you wouldn’t like to buy a coupon.
This is what a coupon looks like: In the center, the five-digit ticket number (00155), in the upper right corner, the series (17), and below that, the number of the coupon (2 of 10). And the price of 20 euros, which is why I never treated myself to this exciting pastime.
Because, as I’ve already lamented, 20 euros is still a lot of money, the coupons are split once again. But now we are sliding from the official to the unofficial betting business, because you are not allowed to cut up the coupons. Instead, you meet people in the park who sell photocopies of their coupons and promise to give you a share of the profits. So you buy a copy, with the seller of course telling you the participation quotient, and you leave your phone number with the traveling salesman, who will give you a call on Christmas, informing you of your winnings.
People in Spain are very honest.
These participation deals (which you can think of as mutual funds) are especially common among groups who want to rejoice together on Christmas Eve: Families, work colleagues, the regulars at a pub, sports teams, the crew of the International Space Station, soldiers on deployment abroad, inmates of prisons or nursing homes.
Incidentally, there is nothing complicated that cannot be made even more complicated:
To prevent counterfeiting, the lottery company has to keep track of which tickets with which numbers from which series it has delivered to which of the 3,420,591 points of sale.
Now, there are people who want a specific ticket number. Maybe their date of birth. Or the number that won last year. Or a number that has never won. Or the numbers that the fortune teller in the street behind the bull-fighting arena told them – in exchange for a share of the profits, of course.
Because the lottery company is state-owned and because the administration in Spain is very service-oriented, you can call them and ask to which kiosk in the enormously vast country (which, as we know, also includes areas in Africa and in the Atlantic) the desired numbers have been delivered. Many Spaniards then take advantage of summer vacation, fall vacation, strike days, sick days or early retirement to drive around the country and buy up the desired lottery tickets.
Another form of lottery tourism occurs when a retail outlet sold the big, fat winning ticket (“El Gordo”) last year. I don’t know why, but hundreds of thousands of people then drive to that very outlet in the current year to deposit at least 20 euros.
And if the winning ticket was sold at a gas station, then that gas station won’t sell any more gas the following year, because no one wants to stand in line with a bunch of gamblers for 3 hours just to pay for diesel.
In this case, it was particularly extreme because the gas station is located on Tenerife. Many Spaniards flew to the Canary island from the mainland for that one purpose. God forbid if the lucky ticket ever comes from Melilla.
And today, on 22 December, the lucky numbers will be drawn.
It will be broadcast live on television, with ratings beyond those of the World Cup, with cries of joy and heart attacks throughout the country.
A special feature is that the winning ticket numbers, as well as the respective prizes, are sung by children from San Ildefonso High School in Madrid. Orphans have been used for more than 200 years – not the same ones, obviously – because there is no danger of their parents inciting them to cheat.
And thus it goes on for more than 2000 prizes, all day long. But in other countries, people don’t do anything useful for Christmas either.