MADRID -- With wide smiles, elated lottery winners popped corks on bottles of sparkling wine Tuesday in the southern beach city of Roquetas de Mar, where tickets bearing the top prize number in Spain's Christmas lottery were sold.
The winning number - 79140 - appeared on 1,600 tickets in the lottery known as El Gordo (The Fat One), with each ticket holder winning 400,000 euros ($434,800).
The lottery has taken on special importance in recent years as Spain struggled through a real estate bubble and the European debt crisis. The annual event Dec. 22 unites the country as millions watch the hours-long TV program to find out if they are among the lucky ones.
Other lotteries have larger individual top prizes but El Gordo is ranked as the world's richest, handing out a total of 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) this year in millions of prizes.
Nearly half of the winning tickets were bought by a high school in the nearby village of Laujar de Andarax, population 1,600, where they were resold by pupils trying to raise money for a school trip.
"Nearly everyone has a ticket, or a share in one," Laujar de Andarax mayor Almudena Morales told Spain's Europa Press news agency.
"They went to workers who need it a lot," she said "And to top it off, they were distributed by the kids."
The mayor of Roquetas de Mar called the win great news for his city in the province of Almeria, which has an unemployment rate of 31 percent - much higher than Spain's national 21 percent jobless rate. Smiling winners showed up at the lottery agency and cracked open the bubbly.
"I'm really happy and I congratulate all the winners," Mayor Gabriel Amat told the Voz de Almeria newspaper. "It's very important for the town, especially in the difficult times we've been facing."
El Gordo tickets are sold in many lottery sites around the country and shell out different winnings - but this year the top tickets were all sold by one lottery agent. Lottery officials say that can happen because of the way tickets, which are pre-printed, are allocated to sales points. Buyers can only pick from the numbers their vendor has available.
Smiling winning lottery seller Jose Martin told Spanish National Television the tickets "were well spread out. Some were sold to tourists, and two or three went to the Canary Islands."
"I feel a great joy, mainly because it's so well spread out, especially among workers," he said.
Spain established its national lottery as a charity in 1763, during the reign of King Carlos III, but its objective gradually shifted toward filling state coffers. El Gordo itself dates from 1812.
The standard ticket costs 20 euros ($22). People traditionally chip in together and buy shares of several or many tickets among friends, families or workmates in one of the most popular Christmas customs in Spain. Queues form outside lottery stores weeks ahead of the draw.
The prize ticket numbers are sung out by pupils of Madrid's Saint Ildefonso School in a nationally televised event from the city's Teatro Real opera house.
Associated Press writers Alan Clendenning and Harold Heckle contributed to this report. null
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