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Spain's popular Christmas lottery pays out $3 billion in prizes

By Al Goodman, CNN Madrid Bureau Chief
Thousands celebrated winning in the el Gordo lottery Wednesday -- this bar owner sold the largest number of winning tickets.
Thousands celebrated winning in the el Gordo lottery Wednesday -- this bar owner sold the largest number of winning tickets.
  • Ticket buyers poured $4.3 billion into Spain's lottery known as El Gordo
  • The lottery paid out $3 billion in prizes
  • Despite Spain's depressed economy, sales were brisk

Madrid, Spain (CNN) -- Spain's El Gordo, or "the fat one," annual Christmas lottery paid a hefty $3 billion in prize money on Wednesday to thousands of people testing their luck in Spain's deep economic crisis.

The top single prize was about $4 million, and many of the winning tickets in that series were sold in Barcelona and the nearby town of Cerdanyola in the northeastern region of Catalonia, where the big prizes have often landed over the years.

Despite a widespread sense that money isn't flowing and bank loans are hard to get in Spain's financial crisis -- with nearly 20% unemployment and a deep deficit that has prompted government austerity measures -- Spaniards and others from abroad "invested" about $4.3 billion into the Christmas lottery this year.

Seventy percent was paid out as prizes, or $3 billion, while the remainder went for lottery adminstration and the national treasury, according to the national lottery website.

The winning number was 79.250. Most Spaniards buy just a one-tenth portion of a numbered series, and for Wednesday's top prize, it meant someone could have paid about $25 for a tenth portion and won $400,000 in return.

Spain's Christmas cash
  • Spain
  • Madrid

That's why champagne, or the Spanish bubbly called cava, flowed at lottery offices, restaurants, and stores which had sold the winning numbers, often to Spanish families, or a group of co-workers.

Spaniards on average spent about $80 for lottery tickets. Despite the economic downturn that was almost as much as last year.

Spanish news reports said a bar owner in the town of Palleja, near Barcelona, had purchased a large number of what turned out to be winning tickets, and in turn sold them to his customers. Some $235 million in prize money was to be distributed among them.

Other winners included a group of truck drivers from southern Spain who had purchased some of the winning tickets at a lottery office in central Barcelona, Spanish media reported.

The lottery started in 1763, or 247 years ago. It has become such a deep tradition in Spain that even people who don't buy lottery tickets usually end up with some tiny fraction tickets given away by their local butcher shop or pharmacy.

The three-hour lottery draw was nationally televised and followed closely on radio and the internet, with Spaniards continually checking their ticket numbers. Numerous smaller prizes, such as $60,000 for a series, were also awarded.

The lottery draw was held at a convention center in central Madrid this year, moving from its previous location at a school for the first time in 47 years, because officials said, more space was needed due to increased interest.