Christmas could come early for one lucky winner this year if they scoop more than half-a-billion dollars in prize money up for grabs in Tuesday’s Mega Millions jackpot.
A last-minute ticket buying frenzy saw the prize swell to $636 million on Monday before Tuesday’s 11 p.m. ET draw. That makes the jackpot the second largest in U.S. history; a record $656 million pot was split three ways in March 2012.
"We've never had a jackpot this high the week before Christmas," said Virginia's lottery director Paula Otto. "You like to see winners and you like to see big jackpots. I leave it in the hands of the bouncing balls.”
The more tickets sold, the better the chance that someone will match one of the 259 million possible number combinations that could land a jackpot. By Tuesday's drawing, players will have bought enough tickets to cover 65 percent to 75 percent of the possible number combinations to strike it rich, Otto said.
"You don't know you have a winner unless it's 100 percent covered, though," Otto said.
For winners who choose a one-time payout over the 30-year annuity, the lump sum is estimated at $341 million — before taxes.
John Brecher / NBC News
Victor, who preferred not to give his last name "in case I win," buys a Mega Millions lottery ticket on Tuesday, Dec. 17 in New York City.
At a corner grocery store on Manhattan's Upper East Side, ticket buyers lined up for a chance to strike it rich, and shared their dream shopping lists.
"I would give at least half of it to my church," said Keith Boyd, pastor at the nearby Trinity Baptist Church, who bought 20 tickets to give away as gifts while keeping one for himself. "It would be a way to bless others."
Syed Waheed, a 37-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan who bought a single ticket, said he would use the fortune to bring his entire family to the United States.
If no one picks the exact combination of numbers that appear on six randomly selected lottery balls, the prize will keep growing until the next drawing on Friday.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Mega Millions jackpot jumps to $550 million after nobody wins big prize
First published December 17 2013, 2:12 PM