MADRID — Winners of Spain’s cherished Christmas lottery — the world’s richest — celebrated Saturday in more than a dozen locations where the top lucky tickets were sold, a moment of uplift for a country enduring another brutal year of economic hardship.
The lottery sprinkled a treasure chest of $3.3 billion in prize money around the country. Champagne corks popped and festive cheers broke out in 15 towns or cities where tickets yielding the maximum prize of $530,000, known as “El Gordo” (The Fat One), had been bought.
A total of $687 million was won in the eastern Madrid suburb of Alcala de Henares alone. Among the top prize-winners were 50 former workers at metal parts factory Cametal who had formed a pool to buy tickets. Their company had filed for bankruptcy and ceased paying wages five months ago.
“I’m bursting with joy, I haven’t fully taken it in yet,” local resident Josefina Ortega said. “When others win, you think to yourself it’ll never happen to you, but it has.”
Unlike lotteries that generate a few big winners, Spain’s version — now celebrating its 200th anniversary — has always shared the wealth more evenly instead of concentrating on vast jackpots, so thousands of tickets yield some kind of return.
Almost all of Spain’s 46 million inhabitants traditionally watch at least some part of the live TV coverage showing school children singing out winning numbers for the lottery.
It is so popular that frequently three $26 tickets are sold for every Spaniard, and many consider lottery day as the unofficial kickoff of the holiday season.
Before Spain’s property-led economic boom collapsed in 2008, ticket buyers often yearned to win so they could buy a small apartment by the beach or a new car. Now people say they need money just to get by, or to avoid being evicted from their homes.
Though ticket sales were down 8.3 percent on last year, according to the National Lottery, in the days preceding the draw, hundreds of people lined up to buy tickets outside outlets that have sold winning tickets before.
Dolores Perez and Teresa Palacio, two lottery outlet workers in north Madrid who sold a top prize ticket, celebrated with sparkling wine as curious neighbors gathered. The fortunate winner had yet to make an appearance.
“I had never sold a Christmas ‘Gordo’ before; I almost thought it didn’t exist,” said Perez, smiling broadly. “I’m so happy. I’ve worked here for 30 years and never before sold a ‘Gordo,’ until now.”
Since so many people chip in to buy tickets in groups, top prizes frequently end up being handed out in the same small town or in one city neighborhood.
Last year’s top winning number hit for 1,800 tickets in the northern town of Granen, population 2,000. Townspeople shared about $925 million, and the rest of the $2.4 billion was doled out in smaller prizes around Spain.
Spain holds another big lottery Jan. 6 to mark the Feast of the Epiphany. It is known as “El Niño” (The Child), in reference to the baby Jesus.