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Celebrations mark start of Lunar New Year

Week-long festivities to usher in the Year of the Snake kick off in China and elsewhere.
Last Modified: 10 Feb 2013 08:31
Chinese tradition says that loud fireworks help to ward off evil spirits [Reuters]

More than a billion people have ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and celebrations, with a Chinese televised gala kicking off a week of festivities.

From Australia to South Korea, millions of people travelled huge distances to reunite with their families for Lunar New Year - the most important holiday of the year for many in Asia - indulging in feasts and celebrations.

As the clock struck midnight on Sunday, Beijing's skyline lit up with colour as residents braved freezing temperatures to set off loud fireworks, traditionally believed to ward off evil spirits - a scene repeated across China.

This year saw a sharp reduction in the sale of fireworks, however, as heavy smog in recent weeks has stoked fears that Beijing's notorious air pollution levels could touch dangerous highs during the festival.

More than 260,000 boxes of fireworks were sold in the city in the days leading up to the New Year, a 37 percent drop compared to last year's sales, after the smog left citizens "worried", the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Symbol of wisdom

State broadcaster CCTV aired its annual gala variety show during the countdown to the New Year - which rakes in hundreds of millions of viewers - featuring a gamut of megastars including Celine Dion, who sang a folk song in Mandarin.

Chinese leaders have made few public appearances in recent days, although the state broadcaster said new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping visited on Saturday with policemen, subway construction workers, taxi drivers and street cleaners in Beijing to thank them for their service.

Premier Wen Jiaobao, who has made a point of spending the holiday eve with workers and the poor, celebrated the last such occasion of his term in office with victims of earthquakes and landslides in western China, CCTV said. Wen steps down in March.

The snake has traditionally been seen in China as a symbol of wisdom, wealth and longevity, but is considered less auspicious than other animals in the 12-year Chinese zodiac.

In Taiwan, temples were thronged with the faithful seeking blessings, with President Ma Ying-jeou seen handing out traditional "red envelopes" with money (a token Taiwanese $1, which is $0.03) to well-wishers in Taipei.

People also rushed to lotto booths to buy special Lunar New Year lottery tickets with a jackpot of $6.89 million.

In Sydney, fireworks overnight announced the Lunar New Year though the city's major event, the annual Twilight Parade featuring some 3,500 performers, is not on until next weekend.

The New Year typically marks the largest annual movement of people as millions of people across China and other Asian countries squeeze into packed trains and buses to journey home to spend the season with their families.

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