Spain in crisis clings to Christmas treats

Spain in crisis clings to Christmas treats

MADRID - Decked in luminous tinsel, the market stalls on Madrid's old Plaza Mayor sparkle with festive glee - but in Spain's fifth Christmas of crisis, even Santa is tightening his belt.

Citizens are being tested this Christmas by rises in sales tax and the slashing of end-of-year bonuses which are cramping spending on traditional treats.

"In previous years you might spend three or four hundred euros on presents, but this year we'll be grateful if we can spend more than a hundred," said Noelia Serrano, 20, a shopper at the market.

Another, Paloma Martin, 51, says she too is spending less this year, fearing the impact of cuts on the health sector in which she works.

"Although I have a job at the moment, I don't know whether I'll still have it come January or whether they'll fire me," she says.

You know things are serious in Spain when austerity bites into popular treats such as "turron" nougat - a sugary staple of Spanish Christmas dinners.

"We have families who have been coming to buy here for three generations," says Amelia Almodovar, manager of Casa Mira, an old turron shop in central Madrid.

"It's as if at Christmas, without turron, something is missing."

Casa Mira is packed with shoppers in the afternoon a week before Christmas - but Almodovar has seen demand fall this year.

With one in four Spanish workers unemployed, the government is fighting to fix the public finances through cutbacks that economists say dampen demand. It has failed to raise pensions in line with inflation and has hiked sales tax on various goods.

Almodovar says her business has produced at least a tonne less nougat this year than before the crisis started in 2008 - about nine tonnes in all - and has not raised prices so as not to scare off customers.

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