Every Lunar New Year billions of red envelopes stuffed with money are exchanged physically and virtually as a token of good fortune in the New Year. This year Lunar New Year falls on Jan. 28 and will be celebrated until Feb. 15.
Red envelopes or hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese are small red and gold packets containing money given to children, family members, friends and employees as a symbol of good luck. In Chinese culture, the color red is associated with energy, happiness and good luck. The red envelope itself is considered lucky not necessarily the money inside.
To welcome the Year of the Rooster, red envelopes are popping up everywhere. They can be bought at Asian grocery stores or online. They’re also very easy to make yourself.
According to Chinese legend, the tradition began as a way to keep children safe from the Chinese demon Sui who would come after sleeping children on New Year’s Eve. In China the envelopes are also called yasui qian meaning “suppressing ghost money.”
The tradition is especially directed at children. There are envelopes decorated with popular cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Pokémon and Hello Kitty. Children receive the envelopes from their parents and grandparents until they are married and are then expected to begin giving envelopes themselves.
In recent years, red envelopes have been sent through the popular Chinese app WeChat as a way to send the memento to loved ones that cannot physically be reached. The digital version has allowed more red envelops to be exchanged than ever before. Last year, it was reported that 8 billion electronic hongbao’s were sent over WeChat on Lunar New Year’s Eve.
When giving and receiving red envelopes, there are important customs to follow. If you’re giving a red envelope use new crisp bills and avoid coins. Do not put in amounts that start with four because it is an unlucky number in Chinese culture. Try to give even amounts, and if possible start or end the amount in the lucky number eight.
If receiving a red envelope, first offer a New Year greeting wishing the giver good fortune in the New Year. It is polite to take the envelope with both hands and do not open it in front of the person who gifted it.
The amount each person chooses to give varies. The closer the relationship, the higher the amount. Generally, parents and grandparents receive $100-$300, children receive $20, friends and relatives receive $10-$30 and employees are given a red envelope on the last working day before New Year of $20-$200 as a small holiday bonus.