MADRID – Winners of Spain’s cherished Christmas lottery — the world’s richest — celebrated Saturday in more than a dozen locations where lucky tickets were sold, a moment of uplift for a country enduring another brutal year of economic hardship.
Initial reports said there were winners of the maximum prize of €400,000 ($530,000) in 15 towns or cities. In Madrid, two lottery outlet workers who sold a top-prize tickets celebrated with sparkling wine as curious neighbours gathered. The fortunate winner had yet to make an appearance.
The lottery sprinkled a treasure chest of €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) in prize money around the country.
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 known as “El Gordo” (“The Fat One.)”
It is so popular that frequently three €20 ($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 said they needed money just to get by, or to avoid being evicted from their homes.
Though ticket sales were down 8.3 per cent on last year, according to the National Lottery, in the days preceding the draw hundreds of people line up to buy tickets outside outlets that have sold winning tickets before.
Madrid’s Dona Manolita lottery store in Madrid is renowned for being particularly lucky and queues there sometimes go round the block. Unemployed construction company office manager Miguel Angel Ruiz drove 165 kilometres (102 miles) to the shop to buy for a pool of players including his wife and relatives.
“We’re buying more hoping we’ll hit it so we can emerge from poverty,” said Ruiz, 39. “Before the crisis, lottery winnings were to buy an apartment or a car, and now it’s to pay debts.”
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 neighbourhood. Last year’s top winning number hit for 1,800 tickets in the northern town of Granen, population 2,000. Townspeople shared about €700 million ($925 million), and the rest of the €1.8 billion ($2.4 billion) was doled out in smaller prizes around Spain.
The Dec. 22 lottery began in 1812 and last year sold an estimated €2.7 billion ($3.6 billion) in tickets with per-capita spending of about €70 ($92) just for the Christmas lottery.
Spain holds another big lottery Jan. 6 to mark the Feast of the Epiphany. It is known as “El Nino” (The Child), in reference to the baby Jesus.
But the crisis will hit El Nino and all lotteries going forward. Until now, lottery winnings have been free from taxation, but now prizes above €2,000 ($2,640) will be liable to a 20 per cent tax in 2013.
The government has imposed stinging austerity measures this year in a bid to prevent Spain from asking for a full-blown bailout like those granted to Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus. Spain’s unemployment stands at 25 per cent and its economy is sinking into a double-dip recession.
Associated Press correspondent Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.