By Clare Kane & Karolina Tagaris
Christmas is bleak this year across southern Europe, the area worst hit by the euro zone debt crisis, with many families struggling to provide even a small celebration for their children.
From Lisbon to Athens, Christmas lights are dim, gift purchases are down and suffering families are bitter at the effect of three years of crisis.
Conditions are worst in Greece, the country which sparked the debt crisis in early 2010 and has had to swallow sweeping tax rises and spending cuts in exchange for international aid.
"It will be difficult. We cannot afford to have the heating on so we will sit at home covered in blankets,» said unemployed computer salesman Polihronis Sotiriou, 46, whose family is now struggling on the salary of his teacher wife.
"Of course we will have a family dinner but we sure won't be eating meat this year,» he said. Comparing it to Nazi rule in World War Two, he added: «I know from my parents who lived through the occupation that this year is as bad as it was then - if not worse."
Feelings are similar in Portugal, which like Greece is kept afloat by an international bailout and is mired in its worst recession for 40 years.
"If we exchange gifts this year at all, it will be something very cheap, probably bare necessities,» said Agneia de Sothe, a 48-year-old cleaning lady in Lisbon.
Italy, the euro zone's third biggest economy, has rattled investors' nerves because of a political crisis and uncertainty about the outcome of an election expected in February.
But steep tax rises and spending cuts by technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti have already caused great pain, with the latest instalment of a hated property levy swallowing savings just before Christmas.
"I am buying no gifts this year. None, except for the children. Last year I bought presents for everyone, friends and family,» said civil servant Nadia di Santo, 38, in a shopping district in northern Rome.
"I have put up the tree, although I am using the same decorations as last year. I will sort something out for Christmas dinner."
Nearby, Marisa Pines, the owner of a women's accessories shop, shook with anxiety as she said her takings were way down. «I have had this shop for 24 years,» she said. «This is the worst I have ever seen."
Things are bad too in Spain, the zone's fourth biggest economy, which is widely expected to be the next to take a bailout. Here, though, strong family networks and traditions of Christian giving are pushing many people to buy gifts despite their straitened circumstances.
SPANISH SPEND DESPITE CRISIS
Barcelona business school ESADE said the average Spanish family will spend 650 euros on all Christmas spending - more than households in many richer European countries to the north. But that figure is still 40 percent lower than in 2007.
At accountancy firm Deloitte, which carries out an annual Christmas consumption survey, Victoria Larroy said: «There has been a big drop in Christmas spending, but tradition also matters. Spain is still the fifth highest-spending country in Europe and that is for cultural reasons.
"At both ends of the scale people are motivated by the same thing,» said Larroy. «Those who plan to spend more say that next year is going to be so hard they want to enjoy themselves a bit and forget about those day-to-day worries.
"And those who don't want to spend say it is because they can't forget about the crisis."
ESADE marketing professor Jaime Castello said 25 percent of Spanish consumers, those worst hit by a crisis that has put one in four workers out of a job, would spend less than half the national average on Christmas gifts and entertainment.
"For this group, the most important thing is buying nice food and giving presents to the children. They will cut out everything else and won't eat out with friends,» he said.
"Everything will be focused on the household."
The signs of a frugal Christmas are obvious on Madrid's streets, where shops are unusually quiet and decorations have been reduced.
"We were selling three times as much this time last year,» said Jesus Cerelo, 30, a butcher at a neighbourhood market in a residential district of the Spanish capital called Prosperidad.
"You really notice that there are fewer people,» said Antonio Perez, 46, who sells seafood at the market, where many of the stalls have closed down and the hall is dark and quiet.
Vassilis Korkidis, head of Greece's ESEE retail federation expected people there to spend 15-20 euros on average on gifts, compared to 40 euros last year.
"Family is very important to us Greeks so the worst thing is when you are not able to provide for them,» said 70-year-old pensioner Nikos Tsakos. Two of his three children, in their 30s and 40s, are out of work and he has two small granddaughters.
"Sometimes my wife and I cry when we realise we will not be able to buy the girls toys this year,» Tsakos said. «We cut back on everything - decorations, food. How can you celebrate when things are so bad?"
Ioanna Georgiou, a 59-year-old schoolteacher whose salary has been slashed, condemned Greek politicians for bringing the country to its knees: «They are sucking our blood,» she said as she window shopped near Syntagma Square in central Athens. The plaza outside the Greek parliament once boasted Europe's biggest Christmas tree but is now decorated with only a few lights.
"It's shameful that we cannot afford to buy our grandchildren anything for Christmas - maybe only a chocolate. How can you do that? It breaks your heart,» she said.
Thousands of small businesses have collapsed in the worst economic crisis since World War Two, and long lines of shops are shuttered or up for sale on the city's cobbled streets.
One in four Greeks are out of work and the soaring cost of fuel has forced many to use wood stoves to stay warm this winter while others have no heating at all.
Portuguese streets are darker, too, as cities cut back on holiday lighting. A recent survey showed Portuguese expected to spend 35 percent less on gifts this Christmas.
Jaquelina Justino, 38, who lost her bus driver's job last year, is working at a stand in a downtown Lisbon metro station selling wristbands at five euros each and Christmas decorations to raise money for the homeless.
"This year, you can see people are not very given to buying presents even though it's Christmas,» she said. «Some just turn away, most say they cannot afford to buy gifts.» [Reuters]