What is Lunar New Year? Understanding the Disneyland Celebrations!

If you’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World recently, you’ve probably noticed merchandise and decor celebrating the Lunar New Year! Lanterns, red envelopes, and more!

Mulan has even gotten in on the action! © Disney

But what exactly is Lunar New Year? The best way to answer that question is to ask someone who celebrates! But, failing that, this guide will help you figure out some of the basics behind the celebration.

Many of our western readers will known the Lunar New Year as “Chinese New Year” to distinguish it from similar festivals around the world, though it’s simply known as the Spring Festival in mainland China. It’s called Lunar New Year because it begins on the first new moon that appears between the 21st of January and the 20th of February. The use of the moon is also why the date differs so heavily from what many westerners consider to be the “New Year:” the Gregorian calendar is solar, meaning that it’s measured by the Earth’s location relative to the sun, rather than the cycles of the moon.

China Moonrise 1
The moon is an excellent timekeeper, so people around the world have traditionally used it to mark the passing of years.

The Lunar New Year consists of several festivals over the course of two months, much like the North American season traditionally begins with Thanksgiving. That’s a bit of an overly simplistic comparison, but the Lunar New Year is of equal, if not greater cultural importance in the communities where it’s celebrated!

The Lunar New Year begins with the Laba festival, which fell on January 2nd this year. Originally a pagan festival honoring the gods, it has since been blended with the beliefs of Daoism and Buddhism.

You can see elements of China’s religious practices in the movie “Mulan”, exemplified by the character of Mushu.

Later on is the Little Year, which began on the 17th. This is another period of prayer, as well as cleaning the house to prevent bad luck. It’s also very important to finish your preparations by this time, as stores are closed for the first five days of the New Year!

New Year’s Eve is next, falling on the 24th of January this year. The biggest event on this day is the reunion dinner, where the entire family gathers for a feast!

Disney depicted such a dinner in their 2018 short, “Year of the Dog”. © Disney

After a delicious meal of dumplings, noodles, and other family specialties (no two are exactly the same!), the children are given red envelopes filled with money as gifts. Red Envelopes are an iconic part of the celebration, and sold around the world!

Red Envelopes featuring characters are very popular.

Each new year is represented by an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. According to legend, the Jade Emperor invited the animals to a party, honoring them in the Zodiac in the order of their arrival. This year is the Year of the Rat, making it extra special for Disney fans.

“The Year of the Rat” means Mickey & Minnie are getting some extra celebration this year! ©Disney

The following day, the new year is greeted with firecrackers as neighbors greet one another. After that, there are a series of smaller celebrations, including In-Laws Day, Day of the Sheep, and Break Five. Every day has its own traditions and beliefs, all centered around honoring family, nature, and the gods while bringing in good fortune for the coming year.

After February 4th, preparations begin for the Lantern Festival, marking the first Full Moon of the new year! Lasting five days (February 5th-8th), lanterns are lit to welcome the new year!

The floating lanterns of “Tangled” were inspired by the Chinese Lantern Festival

Of course, there are other lanterns too; floating ones, hanging ones, ones covered in riddles.

This is also when the famous lion dance takes place, where performers operating a long lion puppet dance around and demand food from festival goers. These dances aren’t limited to this festival, but have become an iconic symbol.

The Lunar New Year and Disney

Lunar New Year Celebration at DCA

If you’ve followed our Lunar New Year coverage, you know that the festival at Disney California Adventure is set to last during the exact length of the Spring and Lantern Festivals, from January 17th to February 9th. But, why the big celebration? And why only at Disneyland?

Lunar New Year at DCA

Disney World does celebrate the Lunar New Year with merchandise and some commemoration at the China Pavilion at Epcot, but it’s a much smaller celebration than at Disney California Adventure. The main reason? Demographics. California has a much larger population of ethnic Chinese people than Florida. Moreover, Chinese culture (the Lunar New Year in particular) is an integral part of California’s cultural tapestry. A theme park celebrating California wouldn’t be complete without a nod to one of the biggest festivals there is.

The food served during the festival also has its roots in Chinese tradition.

Similarly, many of the offerings during the festival have origins in the Lunar New Year festival. Door decorations, like the one below, aren’t just fun; they’re meant to invite good fortune!

They’re also adorable!

If you’ve never celebrated Lunar New Year before, and want a chance to experience some surprisingly authentic traditions, Disney California Adventure is the place to go! While it certainly won’t compare to celebrating with family and friends, it’s a good way to get a taste of this incredible festival.

…I am already craving dumplings. Is anyone else craving dumplings?

Do you celebrate Lunar New Year? We admit we’re no experts, so we’d love to hear your insights. What are your traditions? Did we get anything wrong? Let us know in the comments!

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Austin Lang is an Orlando local with a love of Disney, puns, and Disney puns. He's been a contributing writer for AllEars since 2019, and has been sharing his quirky view of Disney life ever since.

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