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Tuesday, December 22, 1998 Published at 22:34 GMT

World: Europe

Lottery fever hits Spain

Manuel Vargas (left) and Alejandro Esteban received $2.1m each

Thousands of people all over Spain have been celebrating after receiving prizes in the country's giant Christmas lottery.

[ image: A butcher wins a share of first prize]
A butcher wins a share of first prize
The lottery, known as El Gordo ("The Fat One"), dished out 194 bn pesetas ($1.4 bn) in winnings this year.

The top prize of 42bn pesetas ($290m) was shared among thousands of people across the country, including whole communities, many of whom had bought only a fraction of a ticket.

The country practically ground to a halt as a group of Spanish schoolchildren sang out almost 15,000 numbers and their corresponding prizes in a ceremony that lasted more than three hours.

[ image: Riches, but not enough to retire]
Riches, but not enough to retire
Although some lotteries in other countries offer larger prizes, the organisers of El Gordo say no other lottery sells as many tickets or hands out so many prizes.

The largest amount this year went to a small town in the Northern Basque region.

But others in Barcelona, Murcia and Seville also bought a share of that same number, and as the main prize numbers were read out champagne corks began popping all over the country.

Prizes all round

The attraction for many is that the Spanish lottery money tends to be shared.

[ image: Champagne all round]
Champagne all round
Bosses buy fractions of a number for their staff, the regulars at bars all contribute to a ticket containing their lucky numbers, and extended families buy tickets which incorporate their birth dates.

Few get rich enough to retire. But the winners might take an exotic holiday or buy a new car.

One winner this year who sells cigarettes to motorists treated his customers to free packets before retiring for the rest of the day to celebrate.

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