$3.6bn lottery for debt-hit Spain
Madrid - Millions of crisis-hit Spaniards are snatching up tickets for the world's richest lottery draw on Thursday, which will shower them with a record €3.6bn in prizes.
Undeterred by a 21.5% jobless rate and the prospect of recession, four out of every five Spaniards are expected to snatch up a ticket to a lottery known as "El Gordo", or the "Fat One".
Long queues snaked through the streets as people took a chance to dream of an escape from the economic crisis, each person buying an average of more than €60 worth of tickets.
In Madrid's main artery, the Gran Via, many waited for tickets at a small kiosk.
"I am spending more than last year, €100, and I am sharing the tickets with my friends and family," said a 48-year-old office worker, Victoria.
"Some of them are having a very tough time financially and I want us to win," she said.
A tradition that dates back nearly two centuries, "El Gordo" is an engrained Christmas ritual.
Family, friends and colleagues can play the same number and share the gains if they are lucky on December 22, when pupils from former Madrid orphanage San Ildefenso sing out the numbers on national television.
"I don't usually play the lottery, just 'El Gordo'," said 33-year-old Begona Ramirez, who works in the crisis-hit construction sector and is spending €100 on tickets.
A short walk away at the Dona Manolita lottery ticket shop, which is famed for having sold the winning number several times, superstitious players are prepared to wait for hours for a ticket.
"And they say Spain is in a crisis," a passer-by could be heard muttering as he struggled to get past the huge queue.
Spaniards' attachment to "El Gordo" allows the national lottery to rake in a fortune each year, of which 70% is shared out in prizes.
Spending less this Christmas
It makes the draw one of the world's most generous, said Juan Antonio Gallardo, sales director of the national lottery.
The jackpot has grown to €400 000 from €300 000 last year, and the total value of all the winning tickets to a record €3.6bn from €2.7bn.
"The Christmas lottery is written into Spaniards' DNA. No other lottery in the world sells so much," Gallardo said.
Spaniards are paring back Christmas spending as they face a bleak economic outlook in 2012, with incoming conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy promising €16.5bn in budget cuts.
"I am spending much less than last year. I am looking for practical gifts," said 52-year-old Maria Jose Perez, with a shopping bag stuffed with pyjamas and sports shoes for her 16-year-old daughter.
‘Consumption fragile, frugal, tired’
According to Spain's federation of independent consumers and users, Spanish households will spend an average €560 on Christmas - €114 less than last year.
"Consumption is fragile, frugal and tired," said a report by the Spanish business school ESADE, which predicted a 40% decline in Christmas spending.
"But we will always keep some room for the little pleasures," said the report's author, Gerard Costa.
"And we won't forget traditions like the lottery."
Spain's outgoing Socialist government had planned to sell a 30-percent stake in the lucrative lottery to rake in up to €7.5bn for the state's depleted coffers.
But the government abandoned the sale in September, blaming plunging markets that would have slashed the sale price.