MADRID, Spain — Spain’s beloved Christmas lottery sprinkled euro2.3 billion (US$3 billion) in holiday cheer across the country Wednesday, winnings eagerly welcomed by a nation facing 20 per cent unemployment.
The lottery billed as the world’s richest has no single jackpot but operates a complex share-the-wealth system in which thousands of five-digit numbers running from 00000 to 84999 win at least something. It is known as “El Gordo” (The Fat One) and dates back to 1812.
Taxe-free winnings range from the face value of a euro20 ticket to a top prize of euro300,000.
The sweepstakes, which goes on for three hours, informally ushers in the Christmas season. Many Spaniards spend the day glued to TV sets, radios and computers, waiting to see if they are among the lucky. People often team up to buy shares of tickets sold by bars, sports clubs and business offices.
One bar in Palleja, a town near Barcelona, sold 600 of the top-prize tickets. Its owner, Jose Antonio Maldonado, was ecstatic over being able to help people in need during hard economic times.
“I know a lot of people who are drowning in the economic crisis and who bought a ticket in my bar. I feel like Robin Hood,” he said. “In my entire life I have never cried as much as I did this morning.”
Children from a Madrid school that used to be a home for orphans pick small wooden balls bearing the winning numbers and prizes out of two giant golden tumblers, and sing them out in a time-honoured tune known to every Spaniard.
This year the top prize went to the number 79250. Tickets bearing that number were sold in the Madrid and Barcelona areas, Alicante in the east and other cities ranging from the Basque region in the north to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The most commonly won amount for a euro20 coupon is euro100 ($132).
In lottery-crazed Spain — there are easily a dozen others beside the Christmas one — sales of El Gordo tickets remained stable from last year despite the country’s severe economic woes.
Spain is struggling to emerge from nearly two years of recession triggered by a burst real estate bubble. It has slashed public sector wages, frozen retirement pensions and raised taxes in a bid to convince markets it is not heading toward a bailout like Greece and Ireland.
On Tuesday, Spain’s Parliament passed a 2011 austerity budget by a razor-thin margin, saving embattled Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero his job.
Spaniards are traditionally superstitious about picking their lottery numbers and this year was no exception. The number 11710 sold out in just two hours — symbolic of Spain’s World Cup triumph in South Africa on July 11, 2010.