They make the ultimate last-minute gift -- readily available at thousands of retailers, with proceeds going to a good cause. They're never out of stock, and even though they're cheap, they're considered priceless for a lucky few.

For the person who has enough of everything, except cash, perhaps a lottery ticket?

States nationwide are marketing them as the perfect gift idea, and people are buying. In Minnesota, last-minute shoppers can buy tickets labeled "Holiday Winnings," "A Gift for You" and "Holiday Hundreds" embossed with images of polar bears carrying packages that could contain up to $15,000.

"If we didn't get lottery tickets for Christmas, everyone would be highly disappointed," said Karla Rose of Golden Valley. "They've been a part of our family tradition for nearly 25 years."

Last year Minnesota sold more lottery tickets in December than any other month.

Big jackpots are what really drive sales, said Don Feeney, research and planning director for the Minnesota State Lottery, but the holidays also bring an increase. People give them in stockings, small boxes or as part of a bow on top of another present.

Lang's One Stop Market in Edina, one of the state's top sellers of lottery tickets, sees a 15 percent increase in scratch-off sales leading up to Christmas, said manager Ron Leabo.

"It's like giving a gift card," said John Spry, an economics professor at the University of St. Thomas who studies the gambling industry. "It suggests that families can huddle around the Christmas tree and scratch off their winnings together."

Rose's family members sit around the dining room table with a pot of coffee, eagerly scraping off the 20 tickets her mom buys for each of them, letting out a whoop when a $2 or $5 winner shows up.

The Theisen family in Fridley has a similar tradition. Since 2006, when the state lottery debuted its Minnesota Millionaire Raffle, Cheryl Theisen has bought her sister, dad and mom $10 raffle tickets, putting them in holiday gift envelopes, and placing them on the tree as ornaments.

"Every year the family looks at their numbers and talks about how the winnings, which range from $500 to $1 million, will be spent," she said. "Mom always talks about putting the grandkids through college, paying off our mortgages and then traveling like mad."

Winning ticket

Jenean Rudnitski's sister bought her the Christmas gift of a lifetime last year, a raffle ticket worth $100,000.

The St. Cloud resident checked her numbers on New Year's Day when the raffle drawing is held, and then had to make several attempts by phone to convince her sister that her present turned out to be worth $100,000.

"She didn't believe me and called my mom and said I was a good actress," Rudnitski said.

Ken Winters, a psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School who has studied gambling since the lottery was established in the early 1990s, said the gifts don't produce a spike in gambling abuse.

Winters stressed that lottery tickets should not be given to children under age 18. "It's illegal, and what happens if they win?" he said. "They can't claim the jackpot."

Heidi Moore Travis of Minnetonka said giving lottery tickets sounds pretty lame to her. "Most of the tickets are losers, so basically, you're giving the gift of nothing," she said. "How thoughtful is that?"

Pastor Justin Lind-Ayres of Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis considers lottery tickets another example of how retail has hijacked Christmas. "If someone showed up at the church door needing assistance," he said, "I wouldn't give them a lottery ticket and send them on their way with a 'Merry Christmas. Hope you win.'"

Pastor Chris Enstad of Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale took a more practical approach. He would love to be the person receiving a winning ticket and hate to be the one who gave it away.

"I hope people play the lottery as a game of chance, and not in the expectation of a retirement plan," he said. "But if they win, I hope they remember the church."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633