PALMA AND MADRID
WITH nearly 100'000 people out of work in the Balearics and job prospects few and far between for the near future, this morning's El Gordo Christmas lottery has never been so important to so many people.
The jackpot has not been won in the Balearics since 2003 which was seventh time in history the region has struck gold and today, hundreds of thousands of fingers are going to crossed as the region gathers in homes, bars and offices to watch the draw.
The world's richest lottery, which will deal out more than 2.3 billion euros in prizes, is a part of the Spanish Christmas as much as traditional dishes or nativity scenes.
However, this year's Christmas lottery will have a poignant undertone across the entire country as the dream of sudden riches stands in a stark contrast to Spain's 20 per cent unemployment, the highest in the European Union.
Fewer Spaniards can now afford to buy lottery tickets, and the Christmas lottery sales have fallen by nearly 10 per cent from last year, according to the consumers' organisation FUCI.
Even so, Spaniards have spent an estimated 3 billion euros on what is known as the world's richest and oldest lottery, which has been running for more than 200 years. Please, even if I do not win, help me find a good job. And if I do win, thank you very much, one ticket buyer wrote in the seller's guest book collecting wishes addressed to a golden witch, an imaginary figure believed to bring luck to lottery participants. Today I lost my job. May I win in the lottery, wrote another.
The top prize of the Christmas lottery, known as The Fat One, is worth 3 million euros. Since all ticket numbers are sold 195 times, the jackpot is paid out that many times.
An entire ticket costs the hefty prize of 200 euros, so most people only purchase fractions of a ticket, meaning the prizes are often divided between large numbers of buyers.
Since numbers are sold in batches, prizes tend to converge geographically. In 2009, for instance, fortune smiled on Madrid.
WORLD CUP FINAL DATE
This year's favourite numbers include 11.710, in a reference to July 11, the date on which Spain won the 2010 football World Cup.
The Christmas lottery was created in 1763 by King Charles III, who needed money for state coffers.
The winning numbers are drawn from two 1.5-ton barrels.
They are traditionally not read out loud, but sung in the style of solemn church chant by children from the San Ildefonso school for orphans in Madrid.
This year, half of the singers will be immigrant children from Latin America.
Singing the numbers takes several hours.
The entire country seems to come to a halt as people drop everything else in order to follow the draw on television or radio.
The Christmas lottery is also known in other European countries and as far away as Asia, where people purchase tickets over the internet.
Images of winners showering each other with champagne feed the dreams which keep the lottery going year after year.
In the days preceding today's draw, long queues formed in front of lucky kiosks such as Dona Manolita in central Madrid.
At the same time, however, Spain's lottery sellers were criticising the government's plans to privatise 30 per cent of the national lottery agency in an attempt to streamline and modernise it.
The Spanish lottery system was already so efficient it was the envy of Europe, said Manuel Izquierdo, a spokesman for the sector concerned that the privatisation could lead to job cuts. The sector currently employs more than 10'000 people.
The Christmas lottery is not the only game of chance beloved by Spaniards, who are among the world's keenest gamblers.
In 2007, Spaniards spent more than 30 billion euros in different kinds of gambling, ranging from lotteries to slot machines to casinos.
An estimated 200'000 Spaniards are outright gambling addicts, while up to 600'000 others are defined as having some trouble controlling their urge to gamble. About 60 per cent of the gambling addicts are men. I am almost broke, said a Madrid businessman who had been hit hard by the country's economic crisis.
Yet instead of concluding that he should not spend his last money on the Christmas lottery, he headed straight for the lottery kiosk. If I don't take risks, I will never solve my problems, he smiled.
Let us wait and see who is going to be smiling later this morning once the top prize has been drawn.
It could be you!