Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad
The history of the Spanish Christmas Lottery
The history of the Spanish Christmas lottery stretches all the way back to 18th century. It is common for people to make the mistake of assuming that it is the oldest lottery when in fact lotteries have been a popular way to raise funds quickly since Roman times.
The Spanish National Lottery is over 250 years old while the first ever Christmas lottery was held in Madrid in 1763. Although many El Gordo aficionados will point to the benevolent roots of the lottery it is not actually as benign as they like to believe.
The revenues first generated by the first Christmas lottery were used to cover the costs of war with Portugal and well as colonisation in the New World and putting down unrest, particularly in Mexico and Haiti.
A former Spanish minister took the idea of the lottery from Italian traders in the Spanish court (lotteries had been used by Italian despots as a means to generate revenues for centuries) and put the idea before King Carlos III of Spain.
After hiring some expert help from Italy to aid in the structure and initial organisation, the Spanish National Lottery was founded or Organización Nacional de Loterias y Apuestas del Estado (ONLAE) in Spanish.
The first lottery was held on December 10, 1763 and was carried out exclusively in Madrid. The draws consisted of picking 5 wooden balls out of 90 and it was an instant success, bringing in almost double the revenue as initially expected. The national lottery was called Loteria Real in Spanish.
In November 1811, 48 years later, the Spanish Parliament again was in desperate need of extra funds to buy weapons to fend off Napoleon’s invading Grand Armee.
Unfortunately for the government, much of the Spanish population was against further military spending so a more devious strategy was required. Instead of the government claiming that the money raised by the lottery was to be used to fund the war effort, the Spanish people were told the money would go to an orphanage for the children of deceased civil servants.
The Spanish Parliament decided unanimously to create an additional lottery offer at Christmas when people were more likely to spend money on gifts.
Similar to the Loteria Real this new Loteria Modernia was to work with printed tickets with 5 numbers. The resolution to bring the new lottery into being was not passed until 25 December 1811 so the first draw actually didn’t take place until 4 March 1812. So technically the first lottery was not a “Christmas lottery”.
As much of the country around the Spanish capital was being besieged by Napoleon’s troops the first draw was made in the western port city of Cadiz.
After the Spanish finally triumphed over Napoleon and drove the French out of Spain the lottery draw was relocated to the colony of Cueta on the North African coast while much of the country was being rebuilt. It then returned to Madrid, where it has been held ever since.
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars the funds raised by the Spanish Christmas lottery were finally donated to the cause for which they were promoted.
"San Ildefonso" is the name of the orphanage and is known throughout Spain for its integral role in the Christmas draw.
Since the 19th century the orphanage was transformed into a school. Originally two orphans would make the El Gordo draw. As a continuation of this tradition students from the school now sing all of the results in pairs.
Winners of the El Gordo prize are expected to donate a small portion of their winnings to the school, although many donate significantly more.
The balls are still made of wood of the same weight, although modern technology has made it far more scientific. The numbers are now burned on with a laser following protests that balls with more paint on them were less likely to be drawn.
The Christmas lottery draw procedure has not changed much since the year 1812. Although the venue has changed from time to time (including during the Spanish Civil War when the Republicans were forced to retreat to their new capital in Valencia), and there have been a few times when it has not happened on 22 December, the Spanish Christmas lottery has otherwise run the same way for two centuries.
Because it has become a Christmas institution the Loteria Modernia was renamed "Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad" in 1892.
Although its original purpose may have been disingenuous, Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad has become a national institution which brings together more than 90% of the Spanish population each Christmas. In homes, taverns, village squares and tapas restaurants family and friends gather to watch the live draw to see if they will make history as the newest El Gordo winners.
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