By HAROLD HECKLE
MADRID (AP) â¿¿ Winners of Spain's cherished Christmas lottery â¿¿ the world's richest â¿¿ 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 â¿¬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 â¿¬400,000 ($530,000), known as "El Gordo" ("The Fat One,)" had been bought.
A total of â¿¬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 â¿¿ now celebrating its 200th anniversary â¿¿ 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 â¿¬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.