Spanish Christmas Lottery 'El Gordo' Showers $3.1 Billion in Prizes

Christmas festivities began with joy Saturday in many Spanish cities when the lottery that bills itself as the world's richest showered $3.1 billion on hundreds of fortunate winners.

The top prize, which Spaniards dub "El Gordo" (The Fat One), was split among the holders of tickets bearing the number 06381 throughout the country, in 11 of its 17 provinces and in cities including Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante or Almeria. Each of the winners is to receive $430,000.

The lottery tickets cost $28.70.

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The second prize will be split among holders of tickets bearing the number 55469, all of which were sold in the northeastern city of Barcelona.

The winning number was picked and sung out at 10:47 a.m. by one of the 36 pupils of Madrid's Saint Ildefonso School who are the stars each year of the traditional drawing ceremony televised across the country.

"The low numbers like 06381, are not easy to sell and that's why it was sold all throughout Spain, which is much better," said Juan Luis Castillejo, owner of the lottery kiosk that sold winning tickets in the heart of Madrid. He added that he didn't keep any for himself. "If we had won, at least we could have paid the mortgage," he said.

One of the lucky winners of the third prize was at the drawing and leaped up when she heard the number, news reports said.

Millions of other Spaniards kept waiting to see if their lucky number would show up for hundreds of smaller prizes.

Spaniards have spent an estimated $ 4.8 billion nationwide in recent weeks to take part in what is by far the country's favorite christmas tradition, an increase of 5.7 percent over last year's spending.

No one knows just how many Spaniards play, because the tickets for each number are usually split among family, friends, co-workers and clubmates.

The lottery comprises 185 number series with each series divided into 85,000 tickets. Those tickets are subsequently divided into 10 "decimo" shares worth $28.70 each. Most Spaniards share tickets or "decimos".

The national lottery system was originally established as a charity during the reign of King Carlos III in 1763. But its objective gradually evolved into filling state coffers.

The Christmas lottery was begun in 1812.

Spaniards, who statistics show spend more per head on gambling than any nationality, have steadily bought more tickets for "El Gordo" every year since 1978.

Although other lotteries have bigger individual top prizes, the Gordo is ranked as the world's richest for the total sum paid out.

Spain holds another big lottery Jan. 6 to mark the Feast of the Epiphany. It is known as El Nino, or the child, referring to the baby Jesus.