Spain's Christmas Lottery Gives Away $1.26 Billion

Schoolchildren chanted the winning number Saturday for the grandprize in Spain's Christmas lottery, billed as the richest in the world with $1.26 billion in total prize money.

The sweepstakes – known as El Gordo, or the Fat One – put the entire nation on tenterhooks, with crowds huddling by television sets in bars and living rooms, waiting to see whether their five-digit number would be the lucky one.

Under a complex share-the-wealth system, El Gordo has a top prize of $1.6 million and up to 1,700 people can share it. The most any single ticket can win is $160,000. There are thousands of winners.

The winning number for the grandprize this year was 18,795.

One of the big winners was a folkloric music and dance company on the Canary island of Tenerife. Its members reaped $80 million after buying 500 tickets with the lucky number, state lottery officials said.

"They deserve this money. They are hardworking people," lottery ticket vendor Menchu Mendez said by telephone.

Hundreds of tickets with the winning combination were also sold in the southern province of Murcia.

"It will push up the region's consumption and the gross domestic product. Imagine how many Murcians will now buy a new home, a villa on the beach or a car," regional president Ramon Luis Valcarcel told the national news agency Efe.

According to a 189-year-old tradition, the wooden balls were plucked from a golden tumbler and the winning sums were sung out in high-pitched tones by the children at the San Idelfonso elementary school in Madrid.

This year, this nation of 42 million people bought more than 100 million tickets, spending a total of $1.7 billion on El Gordo – an average of $41 per inhabitant, the State Lottery and Betting Association said. Tickets could not be purchased abroad, although they were available through banks and online betting firms, said association spokesman Luis Pineta.

Although the jackpot is far greater than any other lottery in the world, the multiple winning rules and more than 1,500 tax-free runners-up prizes ensure the wealth is widely distributed.

To buy an El Gordo ticket, players had to wager $16 and choose a number between 00001 and 65,999.

Each number could appear on up to 1,700 tickets. Neighbors, office colleagues and sports teammates frequently get together and bet on the same number. Last year, all tickets bearing the winning number had been sold in the town of Segovia.

The combination that sold out quickest this year was 11901, known as "Bin Laden's number" because it represents Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

This was the last year the schoolchildren will sing the word "peseta" – Spain's currency – as next year the prizes will be awarded in euros, the new legal tender of the European Union as of Jan. 1.

El Gordo also spawned a virtual tourist industry with players traveling across the country to purchase tickets at locations that previously sold lucky numbers.