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MADRID (Reuters Life!) - There may be a gulf between their incomings and outgoings and a debt crisis sweeping through Europe, but that won't stop Spaniards from making the most of the "puente" this long pre-Christmas holiday weekend.
Despite news of tax rises, austerity budgets, soaring unemployment and a euro zone crisis, most Spaniards will take a "puente" (bridge) day in between Monday's Constitution Day and Wednesday's Feast of the Immaculate Conception to create a five-day weekend of shopping, eating, visiting and spending.
Madrid hotels are fully booked by people from across the country coming to gawk at the Christmas lights and take in the shows, despite the government's announcement of a new tax rise and a speeding up of pension reforms to combat a euro zone sovereign debt storm that threatens to undermine the euro.
"We're fully booked in Madrid this weekend, and reservations are looking much higher than last year," a source from a leading hotel group said.
Spain's own economic problems stem from a decade-long debt-driven construction and property boom that left Spaniards up to their ears in debt when the bubble burst two years ago.
The good news for the economy is that demand hasn't waned for Christmas knick-knacks from the Plaza Mayor square or discouraged queues along the busy Gran Via for lottery tickets from Dona Manolita, famous for having sold many winning numbers for the "El Gordo" Christmas draw.
"When you look around right now, it seems as if people still haven't learned their lesson about over-spending," said 39-year-old Madrid resident Ana Lumbreras.
The national traffic authority estimates 7 million journeys in the coming days, with Madrid residents reversing the flow and heading to the coast to avoid chaos in the capital.
The country is struggling to emerge from an 18-month recession, but the recovery has stagnated and unemployment hovers near 20 percent, the highest in the euro zone.
Spain already suffered salary cuts and VAT hikes as the government tries to rein in its public deficit, and a string of new measures, including a higher tobacco tax, were announced on Friday to stave off a bailout like in Greece and Ireland.
The recession and sluggish recovery have devastated some sectors of society. While middle class salaries are down, Spaniards make a special effort during the Christmas period, when they traditionally exchange gifts for the Epiphany.
Joblessness has especially hit young people, most of whom continue living with their parents well into their 20s or 30s.
"Crises in Spain aren't as harsh socially because there's still a strong family cushion to lean on," Juan Carlos Rodriguez of consultancy Analistas Socio-Politicos said.
Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Alexander Smith and Paul Casciato