MADRID - Champagne corks popped around Spain on Sunday as jubilant winners celebrated scooping up prizes in the country's famed Christmas lottery, the world's richest - with $3.4 billion spread among thousands of winning ticketholders.
One ticketholder who slept in Sunday morning said he'd leaped from his bed in surprise after hearing the television announce his ticket number for "El Gordo" (The Fat One) - the lottery's top prize, a cool $546,200 payoff.
Raul Clavero, 27, a mechanic in the Madrid suburb of Leganes, then realized that four other members of his family had also bought tickets with the same numbers.
Millions of Spaniards had been glued to their TVs as 2.5 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in prize money was distributed in a four-hour TV show. Unlike lotteries that offer one mega jackpot, Spain's yuletide drawing sprinkles a variety of winnings on thousands.
Tales of joy and celebration were widely broadcast on TV stations, providing Spain's struggling population a rare moment of joy after another year of a brutal financial crisis.
Before Spain's property-led economic boom imploded in 2008, ticket buyers often talked about spending their winnings on new cars, beach homes, or fancy vacations. Now many Spaniards are just hoping to avoid having their homes or cars repossessed.
"We jumped out of bed and ran out," Clavero said, still looking shell-shocked two hours later. He added that he would "pay the mortgage, that's the first thing, and then just enjoy the rest."
Winning El Gordo tickets this year were sold in at least eight locations throughout the country, including Madrid, Barcelona, and the northern industrial city of Modragon, where the electrical appliance manufacturer Fagor Electrodomesticos filed for bankruptcy in October.
The lottery had one change this year. For the first time, the tax man will claim 20 percent of winnings above $3,400, as the Spanish government strives to right an economy saddled with sky-high unemployment of 26 percent.