Spanish warm up for Christmas with lottery excitement

Spain's Christmas lottery spread 2.3 billion euros (£1.9bn) across the country yesterday, money eagerly welcomed by a nation facing 20 per cent 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 to a top prize of 300,000 euros (255,000).

The lottery draw, which goes on for three hours, informally ushers in the Christmas period.

Many Spaniards spend the day glued to TVs, radios and computers, waiting to see if they have won.

One bar in Palleja, a town near Barcelona, sold 600 of the top-prize tickets, worth 180m euros (153m).

Owner Jose Antonio Maldonado, was ecstatic over 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. They pick small wooden balls bearing the numbers and prizes out of two giant golden tumblers, and sing them out in a time-honoured tune.