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El Gordo brings festive spirit to weary Spain

People celebrate after winning the second prize of Spain's Christmas lottery named 'El Gordo' (the Fat One) in Manises, near Valencia, on December 22, 2011. The world's richest lottery showered prizes of up to $3.3-billion on crisis-hit Spaniards.

Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images/Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images

In Madrid's city centre, a queue of hundreds has lined up outside the Dona Manolita lottery shop as a brass band blasts out music for the Christmas shopping crowds.

With just hours left to buy tickets for the El Gordo, or "the fat one," lottery draw, three burly security guards wearing branded yellow bibs patrol the line, vigilant to any would-be queue jumpers.

Over decades the Dona Manolita has become famous for selling winning tickets, with thousands of Madrillenos so convinced its numbers are the luckiest money can buy, they wait for as long as five hours to snare one.

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"I will only come here because there are always prizes," said Diego, a 26-year-old architect who said he planned to buy "more than €1,000" of tickets, the smallest of which have a €20 ($26.66) face value. "I always wait till the last day to buy because it is the best way … In Spain we do everything on the last day."

Those who don't buy from famed vendors like the Dona Manolita often try to pick lucky numbers instead. This year, tickets matching the dates of the British Royal wedding and the death of the singer Amy Winehouse sold out within hours.

El Gordo, which traces its roots back to Spain's first modern lottery held 199 years ago in Cadiz, remains one of the unifying cultural events in the Spanish calendar, famous for transforming the lives of families, or even entire villages, who split tickets between themselves.

Ahead of Spain's darkest Christmas since the start of the global financial crisis, with almost 23 per cent of adults without work, playing the lottery – the world's largest by total pay-out – remains a priority for even the hardest-pressed.

"People in Spain always play the lottery, but in difficult times like these the appeal of changing your life forever is even bigger," says Xavier Oliver, a professor of marketing at IESE Business School.

Weary consumers in Spain have cut back spending on eating out and holidays by 41 per cent ahead of Christmas, according to Fuci, a consumer lobby group, while lottery ticket sales are estimated to have dropped in the same period by 17 per cent.

Poorer Spaniards buy disproportionately more El Gordo tickets than anyone else. For those who bought online this year, 79 per cent earned less than €18,000 a year before tax, according to Nielsen research.

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Back in the queue outside the Dona Manolita, for those who want to get their hands on a special ticket but are too busy to wait, Victor Diezgil is on hand.

For 20 years he has operated a small stand selling tickets bought from Dona Manolita at a €2 mark up.

"Two years ago one of my tickets won the second prize, I was the one who sold that!" he declares proudly. "These tickets have the same luck, so people who don't want to wait will pay the extra."

When the draw on Thursday morning arrived, millions of Spaniards tuned in to watch pupils from Madrid's San Ildefonso school sing out the numbers of the winning balls, with television reporters rushing to small towns across the country to capture local bars erupting with joy.

Sadly for the Dona Manolita faithful, this year its tickets came up short. The fairy dust of El Gordo instead fell on two housewife associations in Aragon, who split a record top prize of €4-million. All of the tickets with the winning number – 58268 – for the top prize were sold in the same place.

Julian Ifrim, a businessman, says nothing will stop him coming back to the Dona Manolita next year. "People need the illusion that something good can happen to them, and with the crisis people need that hope even more," he says. "I know it is stupid, but I love the adventure. Why else would anyone wait for hours in the cold listening to this terrible music?"

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