MADRID (AP) — 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 €2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) in prize money around the country. Champagne corks popped and festive cheer broke out in 15 towns or cities where tickets yielding the maximum prize of €400,000 ($530,000), known as "El Gordo" ("The Fat One,)" had been bought.
A total of €520 million ($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," said local resident Josefina Ortega. "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 €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 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 €700 million ($925 million), and the rest of the €1.8 billion ($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 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 percent 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 percent and its economy is sinking into a double-dip recession.
Associated Press correspondent Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.