All In This Together

Jonathan Harris | December 2014

Every year since 1812, the results of El Gordo Christmas lottery are sung out by children from the former orphanage, San Ildefonso School. This is no ordinary lottery, and not only because of the astonishing three billion Euros in prizes. What makes it special is that the lottery rules are designed to make sure that neighbors, coworkers and friends share in the winnings. (By the way, yes, El Gordo means “the fat one!”)

El Gordo is an event that involves the entire country. What captures the imagination of Spaniards is that whole communities will share in the astonishing windfall, not just a few individuals. The lottery is designed that way - an individual ticket is 200 Euros, much too expensive for most people. Instead, portions of the ticket are purchased with friends or family so you will win with your neighbors; it is not the luck of one person.

This sense of community is at the core of life as a Spanish person, and why we love being with them. We have enjoyed countless moments of sharing and mutual support over the years in Spain. Several times, when we were utterly lost in Spanish towns, a kind stranger would go out of his way to help us find our destination – once even hopping in and directing me from the passenger seat!

One special example of this “we are all in this together” spirit is El Gordo, the national Christmas lottery that occurs every December 22nd. El Gordo tickets are sold for 200 Euros each, but usually broken into decimos, or tenths, for 20 euros each. On top of that, most of the tickets at each location sell tickets featuring only a few numbers that many people share. The result can be touching and inspiring – and capture the imagination of the Spanish people.

A current Spanish television commercial seems to have caught the attention of just about every Spaniard whom I meet — even here in Virginia! The ad is promoting the gigantic national lottery called El Gordo – and its astonishing $3,000,000,000 jackpot!!!

The opening scene shows an anxious and troubled young man at a loss as to what he should do with himself. It seems that this year, he chose not to buy in El Gordo lottery ticket - when all the other guys in his favorite neighborhood bar did. It turned out that they were all winners and were celebrating their good fortune at the bar. He could hear echoes of the joyful celebration echoing down the stone street. He was torn - of course the young man would have loved to be down at the bar joining with his friends and neighbors to celebrate their good fortune – but how could he? He chose not to buy a ticket when they did, and he lost.

In the background we hear his wife is urging him to swallow his pride (and envy) and go to the bar anyway. After all, she said, the neighborhood bar is a part of our lives together; why not celebrate with your friends anyway? Reluctantly, he walked down the street toward their neighborhood bar - laughter was echoing off the pavement as he joined his friends who shared with him their mirth and celebratory drinks. 

He jostled his way through the crowd to see his old friend the bartender, and ordered himself a beer or two hoping to overcome his feeling of regret. During all the hustle and bustle of the events, the bartender quietly slipped him an envelope. He opened the envelope and inside was a lottery ticket that the bartender had bought for him! The focus of the story of the commercial was not that you individually could make a lot of money, but rather within your community and friends and neighbors you will look out for each other. Nobody is left out. It is the good fortune of the community. 

One story comes from the village of Sodeto, home to a proud but poor population of 250 or so workers and farmers. In 2011, reeling from the economic downturn and a punishing drought, many villagers could ill afford to gamble on a lottery ticket. Even so, nearly every person in the town bought a part of a winning ticket that showered over $160 million on the community. There were no stories of the lucky individual winner ending up harassed by so-called friends and hucksters, because the entire community shared in the winnings! 

There was even one old widow who could not afford to buy a ticket and asked the vendor (undoubtedly a friend and neighbor) to set a ticket aside for her while she saved up. She still had not paid on the day of the lottery and, somewhat sheepishly, sent her nephew to ask if she might share in the windfall. The answer was “¡Por supuesto!,” of course she would be included!

Last year the townspeople of Mondragón, in the Basque Country, won $240 million together. Earlier in the year the home appliances manufacturer Fagor had filed for bankruptcy and 2,000 workers had lost their jobs. They decided that most of the prize money should go to the working class neighborhoods closest to the factory. Once again, a lucky individual was not the recipient of fabulous wealth. Instead a whole community shared in this much needed monetary relief.

Across Spain we have witnessed many examples of this communal spirit, and have been welcomed into homes and communities with open arms. Spain has witnessed a massive wave of modernization over the last few decades, with people flocking to the cities and seeking out the “new” Spain. Many in Spain are rightly proud of the modern, cutting edge culture that has flowered across the country with this modernization. Nevertheless, we are pleased that even through this bold period of change, we continue to observe the generous hospitality that drew our family to Spain so many years ago.

As Christmas approaches, whatever your faith, we hope your time is spent among friends and family with a spirit of generosity. Lovingly celebrating together is the true gift of the season.

¡Feliz Navidad!