Spain holds $1.7 billion Christmas lottery

Monday, December 23, 2002

MADRID, Spain -- Spain came to a standstill Sunday waiting for "The Fat One" -- a $1.7 billion Christmas lottery billed as the world's richest.

The three-hour ceremony that makes for one of the merriest days of Spain's holiday season also marked the end of a 200-year tradition: The children singing the winning numbers and corresponding prizes in a time-honored cadence belted them out in euros for the first time.

The annual lottery known as El Gordo -- The Fat One -- is based on a complex system of number-sharing that shuns jackpots and seeks to spread wealth among millions of people holding numbers ranging from 00001 to 66,000.

About 10,000 numbers win some kind of prize, from $20 to $200,000. Winnings are tax-free.

Because each of the 66,000 numbers is repeated 1,800 times, windfalls ripple through towns, offices, sports clubs and homes.

This year's first-prize number was 08103. The winnings were sprinkled all over Spain, with the 1,800 coupons bearing that number sold in Madrid, Almeria in the south, Calahorra in the wine-making Rioja region of the north and elsewhere.

The central town of Segovia, which hit it big in 2000 -- taking all $255 million in first-prize money -- won $2 million.

In southeast Alcantarilla, Ecuadorian immigrant Norman Manfredo Aguirre won $200,000. He will use the money to bring his teenage daughters from their homeland.

Manfredo Aguirre, an electrician living in Spain for three years, shouted, "Viva Espana!", outside the lottery office that changed his life. His wife, a farmworker, wept with joy at his side, the national news agency Efe said.

Spaniards spend money year-round on a dozen lotteries, but they go all out at Christmas, with three-quarters of the country's 40 million people participating in El Gordo, officials say.

Forty percent of participants spend at least $30, says the state-run Center for Sociological Studies.

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