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Spanish lottery hands out £1.95bn

Spain's Christmas lottery has spread 2.3 billion euro (£1.9 billion) cross the country, money eagerly welcomed by a nation facing 20% unemployment.

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

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

The sweepstakes, which goes on for three hours, informally ushers in the Christmas season. Many Spaniards spend the day glued to TVs, radios and computers, waiting to see if they are among the lucky. People often team up to buy shares of tickets sold by bars, sports clubs and business offices.

One bar in Palleja, a town near Barcelona, sold 600 of the top-prize tickets, worth 180 million euro (£153 million). Owner Jose Antonio Maldonado was ecstatic at 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 my entire life I have never cried as much as I did this morning."

The lottery is decided by children from a Madrid school that used to be a home for orphans who pick small wooden balls bearing the winning numbers and prizes out of two giant golden tumblers, and sing them out in a time-honoured tune known to every Spaniard.

This year the top prize - also known as "El Gordo" - went to the number 79250. Tickets bearing that number were sold in the Madrid and Barcelona areas, Alicante in the east and other cities ranging from the Basque region in the north to Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Spain is struggling to emerge from nearly two years of recession triggered by a burst property bubble. It has slashed public sector wages, frozen retirement pensions and raised taxes in a bid to convince markets it is not heading toward a bailout like Greece and Ireland.

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