Sales at retailers posted a much stronger-than-expected 1.2 percent rise in November, government data showed on Thursday, as holiday shoppers coped with high energy costs and the fallout from a housing slump.

Excluding autos, retail sales gained 1.8 percent, the Commerce Department said.

Economists polled by Reuters forecast retail sales to rise 0.6 percent while sales ex autos were also projected to increase by 0.6 percent.

However, part of the increase was fueled by mounting energy prices, with gasoline sales spurting 6.8 percent higher in November, which was the largest monthly gain since September 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Gasoline sakes are 25.0 percent higher than November, 2006, Commerce said.

Still, sales excluding gasoline and autos gained 1.1 percent in November after growing just 0.1 percent in the previous month.

U.S. stores had been pleasantly surprised as the holiday shopping season got underway late last month, considering high gasoline prices that crimp household budgets, and the fallout from the weak housing sector.

Black Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, which always falls on the fourth Thursday in November, is a crucial day for U.S. retailers

The housing slump is expected to slow the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter and the start of next year, with some fearing a recession, but a great deal depends on whether the U.S. consumer continues to hold up.

In fact, so-called core retail sales, excluding cars, gasoline and building materials, were up 1.1 percent compared with a 0.2 percent gain in October.

Purchases of motor vehicles and parts, which make up around one fifth of total sales, fell 1.0 percent, the Commerce Department data showed.

In another possible indication of that spillover from the housing sector, furniture and home furnishings sales were up 1.0 percent after being unchanged in October.

(Reporting by Alister Bull, editing by Joanne Morrison)