With hundreds of people queuing in the cold to buy lottery tickets, Spaniards' favourite form of Christmas spending is thriving -- despite and because of economic hardship.
"Even though there's a crisis, you always hope that you'll get lucky," says Ester Rubio, 21, who is unemployed, queuing in the cold outside Madrid's best-known lottery ticket shop, Dona Manolita.
Consumer spending has fallen sharply in Spain since the start of the economic downturn in 2008, which has driven unemployment to more than 21 percent.
But for Spaniards, Christmas is an exception and the belt-tightening is not squeezing the bumper festive lottery "El Gordo," or "The Fat One."
"I have been saving money all year for this. I am buying tickets precisely because of the crisis. I will buy more than last Christmas," says Julie Garcia, 65, standing in the long ticket queue.
"If I can win a bit of extra cash, we'll manage better," says Garcia, who plans to spend 80 euros on various tickets for her five children to share.
According to a survey by consultancy Deloitte, Spaniards will spend an average of 668 euros on Christmas this year -- 13 euros more than in 2010 and 113 euros more than their neighbours in other European countries.
Most of those questioned in the survey said they were spending more to take their minds off the crisis and to make the most of the holiday while economists are warning a new recession may be on the way.
Over two centuries, the lottery has become a ritual for Spaniards, who share bets with friends and colleagues and gather round the television on December 22 to hear an assembly of schoolchildren recite the winning numbers.
"The Christmas lottery is in Spaniards' genes," says Juan Antonio Gallardo, director of the National Lottery Company that runs the draw. "It is rooted in Spanish society and Christmas tradition," he adds.
"Ticket sales in last year's Christmas draw made 2.7 billion euros. There is no other draw in the world that can sell that much."
This year, he says total ticket sales are forecast at 3.6 billion euros, of which 2.5 billion euros will be shared out in various prizes, including several individual jackpots which this year are worth 400,000 euros.
Four out of five Spaniards usually take part, spending an average of 60 euros each.
"You can dream with El Gordo, the biggest ever," reads posters on ticket kiosk on Madrid's Puerta del Sol square, bearing pictures of an exotic beach.
Many punters' aspirations are more down-to-earth.
"To get rid of the mortgage," Marta Rodriguez and her husband Jaime Gonzalez respond in unison. At 25 years old, the couple have 30 years of repayments for their house stretching ahead of them.
"Winning the lottery would help us," says Marta. "The first thing to do is get rid of the debts."© ANP/AFP