MADRID — With wide smiles, elated lottery winners popped corks on bottles of sparkling wine Tuesday in the southern beach city of Roquetas de Mar, where tickets bearing the top prize number in Spain's Christmas lottery were sold.
The winning number — 79140 — appeared on 1,600 tickets in the lottery known as El Gordo (The Fat One), with each ticket holder winning €400,000 (US$434,800).
The lottery has taken on special importance in recent years as Spain struggled through a real estate bubble and the European debt crisis. The annual event Dec. 22 unites the country as millions watch the hours-long TV program to find out if they are among the lucky ones.
El Gordo tickets are sold in many lottery sites around the country and shell out different winnings — but this year the top tickets were sold entirely by one lottery agent. Lottery officials say that can happen because bettors don't pick their own numbers.
The mayor of Roquetas de Mar called the win great news for his city in the province of Almeria, which has an unemployment rate of 31 percent — much higher than Spain's national 21 percent jobless rate. Smiling winners showed up at the lottery agency and cracked open the bubbly.
"I'm really happy and I congratulate all the winners," Mayor Gabriel Amat told the Voz de Almeria newspaper. "It's very important for the town, especially in the difficult times we've been facing."
Spain established its national lottery as a charity in 1763, during the reign of King Carlos III, but its objective gradually shifted toward filling state coffers. El Gordo itself dates from 1812.
Other lotteries have larger individual top prizes but El Gordo is ranked as the world's richest, handing out a total of €2.2 billion (US$2.4 billion) this year in millions of prizes.
The standard ticket costs €200 (US$220), and players can purchase as little as one-tenth of a standard ticket, called a Decimo, for €20. People traditionally chip in together and buy shares of several or many tickets among friends, families or workmates in one of the most popular Christmas customs in Spain. Queues form outside lottery stores weeks ahead of the draw.
The prize ticket numbers are sung out by pupils of Madrid's Saint Ildefonso School in a nationally televised event from the city's Teatro Real opera house.
Organizers said ticket sales totaled €2.5 billion this year, up 4.5 percent from last year.
Thanks to hearsetrax for the tip.