People around China welcomed the Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar, with fireworks and family celebrations.  At the same time, Chinese leaders used the opportunity to once again tour areas hard-hit in recent weeks by severe snow and ice storms.  VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.

A crescendo of fireworks at just after midnight Thursday marked the start of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac.

Food is an important part of Chinese culture, and families around the country gathered together to eat.  Many meals included fish, which is traditionally eaten on Lunar New Year's eve because the word for fish sounds like the Chinese word for abundance.

One of the highlights in mainland China is a glitzy state-run television variety special that showcases singing, dancing and short skits.

Amid the music and laughter, and public service announcements warning against drinking and driving, the show paid tribute to the millions of migrant workers who could not return home because snowstorms cut off transportation for days.

On Thursday, state television showcased visits the country's two top leaders made earlier in the week to areas hit by the bad weather.

In the southern province of Guangxi, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited with soldiers who were delivering relief supplies.

Hu said the soldiers have had a difficult time.   He also thanked them for their contribution to the country.

When he visited with people in a market and at a home, President Hu stressed that the government's priority is to make sure peoples' livelihoods are, in the words of state media, "well-arranged." 

In some cities in central and southern China, power has been off for more than a week, leaving millions of people to welcome the New Year without lights, heat or even water in their homes. Shipments of coal and food have slowed to a crawl, and some communities report sharp increases in food prices and shortages of some foods.

Even before snow and ice storms cut off power and transportation, and killed crops in the ground, China had been experiencing some of the worst inflation seen in more than a decade.

The snow disaster has revealed weaknesses in the Chinese economy and its infrastructure, which has little spare capacity for transportation or power disruptions.