By Ben Blanchard and John Ruwitch
BEIJING/SHANGHAI, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Chinese welcomed the arrival of the Year of the Horse with toned down celebrations on Thursday, as people heeded government pleas to set off fewer of the fireworks believed to bring good fortune, because of concern about air pollution.
Chinese New Year, which begins on Friday, is normally marked by riotous displays of fireworks and countless firecrackers, which are thought to bring good luck and scare off evil spirits.
The fireworks blacken the skies with smoke for hours.
With smog blanketing parts of northern, central and eastern China, including Beijing and the commercial hub of Shanghai, some people decided that a more subdued display was in order.
While Beijing reverberated with fireworks and firecrackers, state media said sales had fallen and some residents said they would not be buying as many.
"This is not good for the environment, it's not good for the air," said resident Lao Song. "Last year, I spent about 300 yuan ($50) on fireworks, but I only bought about 100 yuan's worth this year."
Zhang Debi and his wife, Fang Lina, said their fireworks stall in Shanghai's leafy former French Concession area had only sold half as many fireworks as last year.
"People are still going to light some fireworks because the holiday atmosphere just wouldn't be right without them," said Fang. "But if too many are lit off, then that wouldn't be good either."
In keeping with President Xi Jinping's call for frugality amid a campaign against pervasive corruption, sales of luxury items normally given as new year gifts have fallen too.
"No one dares to receive such precious gifts any more," Xinhua news agency quoted Dou Qinlian, a seller of caterpillar fungus, a rare and expensive herbal medicine, as saying at his store in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
The often gaudy New Year galas shown on state television channels have also been reduced in scale, or cancelled.
Maintaining a tradition of leaders visiting ordinary folk at this time of year, Xi flew to snowy and restive Inner Mongolia ahead of the week-long vacation, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar.
State television showed Xi, who has tried to cultivate an easy-going, man-of-the-people image since becoming president last year, chatting with herders about sheep and taking tea in a traditional Mongol yurt, or felted tent.
Coal-rich Inner Mongolia was rocked by protests in 2011, as ethnic Mongols angered at the destruction of traditional grazing land and perceived marginalisation of their culture took to the streets.
"Build up Inner Mongolia as a bastion of security and stability," state media quoted Xi as saying.
Practitioners of feng shui, a Chinese form of geomancy, believe the year ahead may bring conflict and disasters related to fire but strong gains in stocks linked to wood.
The lunar new year is marked by the largest annual mass migration on earth, as hundreds of millions of workers pack trains, buses, aircraft and boats to spend the festival with their families.
For many Chinese people, it is their only holiday of the year. ($1 = 6.0553 yuan) (Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)