Spain's Annual Lottery Jackpot Brings Christmas Cheer

by Bidita Debnath on Dec 23 2013 10:26 PM

In Spain, champagne corks popped as the annual "Fat One" Christmas lottery, which has the world's biggest total payout, spread 2.24 billion euros in prizes around the country, where one in four is out of work.
Millions of people were glued to TV sets as children from a Madrid shool that used to be a home for orphans picked wooden balls bearing the winning numbers and prizes out of two giant golden tumblers and then sang them out in a live draw lasting over three hours.

Unlike other big lotteries that generate just a few big winners, Spain's Christmas lottery aims for a share-the-wealth system rather than a single jackpot, and thousands of numbers yield at least some kind of return. It is known as "El Gordo" in Spanish, or the "Fat One".

Prizes range from the face value of a 20-euro ticket -- in other words you get your money back -- to the top prize of 400,000 euros which this year went to the number 62246.

A total of 1,600 tickets with that number were sold -- just over half of them in Leganes, a working-class suburb south of Madrid that is home to around 200,000.

"I was in bed and my heart started racing when I heard that the top prize fell in Leganes," Alfonso Martinez, 53, who has been out of work for eight months, told reporters outside the state lottery office where he bought his winning ticket.

"I really needed it, I really needed it because at 53, getting a job at this point is impossible."

Winners opened bottles of bubbly outside of the office and celebrated together in scenes of joy repeated across the country.

Before Spain's property-led economic boom collapsed in 2008, sending the jobless rate soaring to 26 percent, winners often talked of buying new cars or taking a luxury holiday.

Now they mostly speak about paying their mortgage and helping their families.

"It is enough of a luxury to pay the mortgage," Raul Clavero, a 26-year-old mechanic from Leganes whose parents are unemployed, told reporters when asked what he would do with his prize money.

Christmas tradition

Another 450 tickets with the winning number for the top prize were sold in the northern city Modragon, home to the headquarters of major Spanish appliance maker Fagor which filed for bankrupcy in October, leaving hundreds of people out of work.

Jose Mari Garai, the manager of a lottery office in Modragon's San Andres neighbourhood where a Fagor factory is located that sold several winning tickets, said the prize had "lifted spirits".

"People were full of pessimism because of what we all know and this has filled us with joy," he said in a reference to the Fagor bankrupcy.

This year's lucky winners will however get slimmed down prizes as a new law sees a 20-percent tax slapped on all winnings above 2,500 euros.

The tax on this year's Christmas lottery prizes will generate 188 million euros for state coffers, according to tax inspectors union Gestha.

As in other years the Spanish government, which has launched tough economic reforms to stabilise the public finances, will also get 30 percent of the revenues from ticket sales, less the running costs, meaning the state will collect around 900 million euros from the draw.

Total sales for the draw were down this year by 4.2 percent to 2.36 billion euros.

Spaniards often choose lottery numbers matching significant dates.

Among the most sought-after numbers this year was 28213, after the date when Benedict XVI resigned as pope -- February 28, 2013 -- and 24713, corresponding to the July 24 train derailment in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 people.

The Christmas lottery has been held uninterrupted since 1812. Even Spain's 1936-39 Civil War did not shake its grip, as each side held its own draw during the conflict.

It has become an important Christmas tradition in Spain, with friends, co-workers and bar regulars banding together to buy tickets.

Although other draws around the world have bigger individual top prizes, Spain's Christmas lottery ranks as the world's richest for the total sum paid out.