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World’s richest lottery spreads Christmas cheer in Spain

Spain’s annual Christmas lottery, which has the world’s largest total payout, gave out 2.32 billion euros in prizes Wednesday to hundreds of lucky winners across the country, which has Europe’s highest jobless rate.

The top prize of the lottery dubbed “El Gordo” or “The Fat One” went to holders of tickets bearing the number 79250.

The winning number appears on 1,950 tickets, each of which wins 300,000 euros (395,000 dollars). It was sold mostly in Barcelona, but other cities including Madrid and Alicante shared in the joy.

“I have never cried so much in my life as I did this morning,” said Jose Antonio Maldonado, the owner of a bar in the town of Palleja near the Catalan capital which sold 600 of the winning tickets to his clients.

“I know of many cases of people who were drowning because of the crisis and they won the lottery in my bar. I feel like Robin Hood,” he told reporters as he was surrounded by local residents who chanted his name.

“I will continue working and paying my mortgage but I will be happier,” added Maldano, who also owned one of the winning tickets.

Just as jubilant was 32-year-old Ecuadorean Piedad Arevalo whose 17-year-old daughter Rosa won 300,000 euros in the lottery thanks to a ticket she bought in Alicante.

“The money will come in handy,” she told reporters.

The winning number for the top prize was sung out at 11:14 am by two pupils of Madrid’s Saint Ildefonso School, a former orphanage, wearing dark blue suits, in a nationally televised draw that lasted for over three hours and is held each December 22.

One boy sung out the prize amount and the other the winning number in a Gregorian-style chant and then they held up the tiny balls holding the numbers to inspectors monitoring the draw.

Thousands of other people won smaller prizes in the Christmans lottery, which has become a favourite holiday tradition since it began in 1812.

While other draws around the world have bigger individual top prizes, “El Gordo” is ranked as the world’s richest lottery for the total sum paid out.

This year total sales were down just 0.26 percent at 2.695 billion euros (3.542 billion dollars) despite an economic downturn that has left Spain with an unemployment rate of around 20 percent, the highest in the European Union.

“It is a holiday ritual, without it Christmas is not complete,” the head of the State Lottery and Betting organisation, Gonzalo Fernandez, told Spanish public television before the draw got underway.

Tickets cost 20 euros each and they go on sale in July. Spaniards often choose lottery numbers matching significant dates.

The number corresponding to Spain’s World Cup win on July 11 — 11710 — was one of the most sought after this year as well as those corresponding to Pope Benedict XVI’s two-day visit to the country last month — 61110 and 71110.

Co-workers, friends and relatives across the country pitch in to buy them together and cafes and bars sell shares in their tickets to their clients.

Spain comes to a virtual standstill on the day of the draw, which lasts some three hours, as people tune into the radio, television or Internet to see if their number is called out.

The state lottery agency estimates per capita spending of 59.74 euros on “El Gordo” this year. Seventy percent of the sales goes to prizes with the rest going into state coffers.