Billions celebrate the Year of the Snake

A billion-plus Asians have ushered in the Year of the Snake with fireworks, after a Chinese TV gala featuring megastars including Celine Dion kicked 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, Beijing's skyline on Sunday 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.

But this year reportedly saw a sharp reduction in the sale of fireworks as heavy smog in recent weeks stoked fears that Beijing's notorious air pollution levels could worsen 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 per cent drop compared to last year's sales - after the smog left citizens "worried", the Beijing News reported.

State broadcaster CCTV aired its annual gala variety show during the countdown to the New Year - attracting millions of viewers.

Featured megastars included Celine Dion who sang in Mandarin.

Dion performed the classic Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower as a duet with local idol Song Zuying, before launching into her global hit My Heart Will Go On from the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic.

In China the snake has traditionally been seen as a symbol of wisdom, wealth and longevity but is considered less lucky than other animals in the 12-year Chinese Zodiac such as the Dragon.

In Taiwan, the faithful seeking blessings crowded into temples, with President Ma Ying-jeou seen handing out traditional "red envelopes" with money (a token Tw$1) to well-wishers in Taipei.

People also rushed to lotto booths to buy special Lunar New Year lottery tickets with a jackpot of Tw$200 million on offer.

In Sydney, fireworks announced the Lunar New Year. However the city's major event, the annual Twilight Parade featuring 3500 performers, will be held next weekend.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard wished the country's 900,000 people of Chinese ancestry a "healthy and prosperous Year of the Snake" on Twitter while ministers in her government said it was an important celebration of Australian diversity.

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.

- AFP, AAP

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