Spanish lotto delivers £2bn in early Christmas cheer

Spain's beloved Christmas lottery sprinkled €2.3 billion (£1.95bn) in cheer across the country yesterday, handing out winnings eagerly welcomed by a nation facing 20 per cent unemployment.

The government-run lottery billed as the world's richest has no single jackpot but operates a complex share-the-wealth system in which thousands of five-digit numbers running from 00000 to 84999 win at least something.

The draw is known as "El Gordo" (The Fat One) and dates back to 1812.

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Tax-free winnings range from the face value of a €20 (17) ticket - in other words, you get your money back - to a top prize of €300,000 (255,483).

The sweepstakes, which goes on for three hours, informally ushers in the Christmas season. Many Spaniards spend the day glued to TV sets, radios and computers, waiting to see if they are among the lucky.

One bar in Palleja, a town near Barcelona, sold 600 of the top-prize tickets - that winning number was 79250 - worth €180m (153.2m). Its owner, Jose Antonio Maldonado, was ecstatic over being able to help people in need during hard economic times. .

"I know a lot of people who are drowning in the economic crisis and who bought a ticket in my bar. I feel like Robin Hood," he said.

In Alcorcon, a town just outside Madrid, lottery office manager Augustin Rubia said he hired a medium to cast a magic spell over his outlet and set up altars outside with religious statues, candles and tarot cards, and it all worked: he sold ten top-prize tickets to the tune of €3m (2.5m).

"The idea was to lure positive energy," Mr Rubia said, adding that all the winners are working-class people.