How to Give Red Envelopes at Chinese New Year

How to Give Red Envelopes at Chinese New Year

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In this article, I’ll walk through the etiquette for giving and receiving the red envelopes filled with lucky money that are an iconic symbol of Chinese New Year.

We’ll get to the details in a moment, but I’ll start by highlighting that the red envelope custom is all about the reciprocity of giving and receiving. It’s a gesture of goodwill, expressed through the exchange of red envelopes, that builds relationships among family and friends. In fact, after all the giving and receiving of red envelopes during Chinese New Year, you’ll probably find that you end up netting even financially. Count the relationships, not the dollars.

A Chinese red envelope (known as lai see in Cantonese and hong bao in Mandarin) is simply an ornate red pocket of paper the size of an index card. They’re commonly decorated with beautiful Chinese calligraphy and symbols conveying good luck and prosperity on the recipient. Though they’re unquestionably a symbol associated with Chinese New Year, red envelopes are also given for weddings, birthdays and other special occasions.

Here are the most common scenarios for giving red envelopes during Chinese New Year.

1. From Parents to their Children

It’s traditional to leave a red envelope with two tangerines (leaves on, of course) by a child’s bedside on New Year’s Eve. Given that Chinese New Year isn’t celebrated with material gifts, the amount is usually around $20, enough for the child to buy a toy on his or her own. Grandparents generally give red envelopes in similar amounts to their grandchildren during visits on New Year’s Eve or in the days following New Year’s Day.

2. From Married Adults to (Unmarried) Children in the Family

Giving red envelopes is an important rite of adulthood, as symbolically you’ve become ready to share your riches and blessings with others. If you’re married, prepare to bring red envelopes for any little cousins and unmarried adult children in your extended family as you visit during Chinese New Year. A token amount around $10 is appropriate.

3. From Adult Children to their Parents

Giving a red envelope to your parents is a sign of respect, a gesture pointing back to longstanding notions of filial piety. Make the gift generous, between $50 and $100, and expect to receive a red envelope in return, symbolizing your parents’ blessings for you.

4. When Visiting Family and Friends

The days following New Year’s Day are a procession of visits to the homes of family and friends to wish them good luck in the year ahead. In addition to the red envelopes you may bring for any children in the home, you should bring a red envelope with about $20 for your hosts, which is customarily placed in the center of the Togetherness Tray of sweets as you snack together.

5. From Employers to Employees

A red envelope at Chinese New Year takes the place of the Christmas bonus common in Western workplaces. Given the expense of traveling home for the holiday, many employers give their employees a red envelope filled with the equivalent of a month’s pay at the beginning of the festival, along with a smaller “token of red” when they return to work. Prepare to do the same if you employ a Chinese nanny or housekeeper in your home.

As you give and receive red envelopes, don’t forget these basic etiquette tips: Choose new bills, don’t ever include coins and wait to open your red envelopes until after you part company. Amounts in even numbers are generally preferred, except for the number 4 because of its resemblance to the word meaning death. And, optional, but denominations including 8s (rhyming with the word for good luck) and 9s (for longevity) carry especially positive symbolic meanings.

Returning to the point I made at the outset, remember that when exchanging red envelopes at Chinese New Year, it’s the relationship that counts most. As with Western gift giving, red envelopes are a way to bring your nearest and dearest closer to you during the most important time of the year.

Your turn! Do you have any tips for exchanging red envelopes during Chinese New Year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

13 Responses

  1. What does it mean when you receive a red envelope with a brand new $2.00 bill in it for Chinese New Year?

    • Hi Tina, in general, even numbers are more auspicious than odd and crisp bills are preferable, but other than that there’s nothing especially significant about a $2 bill. Sounds like a nice gesture, though! ~Wes

  2. Hello, I recently received two red envelopes each containing a 20 dollar bill, equalling 40. Is this bad? Or is it OK as long as the bills are split up between the 2 envelopes. P.S. I’m not chinese so I’m still learning etiquette because my partner is.

    • Hi David, thanks for your question. In general, you wouldn’t want to give someone $4 in a red envelope, but there’s nothing particularly inauspicious about receiving amounts that total up to a number with 4’s in them. Carry on! ~Wes

  3. What do you do with the red envelop after you’ve received it?
    I heard one co-worker say that you take it home, put it under your pillow, and sleep on it for a night. Is there another step after that?

    • Hi Sandra, standard etiquette is not to open the red envelope in the presence of the person who gives it to you. Past that, there are lots of superstitions that people observe, putting it under your (or a child’s) pillow being one of them, but those are all personal decisions. I would just bring the red envelope home and then open it as you would a greeting card. ~Wes

  4. Hello, my unmarried cousins are in their 30s–one of them is in her early 40s. I am married and older than my eldest cousin by 7 years. Should I give them all red envelopes and how much? My husband is not Asian. Should we give them two envelopes each?

    • Hi Scout, great question. I invite others to chime in if they have a different perspective, but here’s my two cents after checking with my family. The general rule is that married people give unmarried people red envelopes, regardless of age, as long as the recipient is younger than the giver. So, in your case, yes, it’s appropriate to give red envelopes to your cousins. In the old days, married couples would give red envelopes in pairs, but this seems to have evolved to just a single red envelope in contemporary times. Finally, the amount you choose to give is representative of the closeness of your relationship. $10 or so is good as a casual gift around New Year, up to say $100 if you are particularly close with your cousins. One technique that helps me decide the amount is to imagine a physical gift I would buy for the person, then convert that amount to cash and put it in the red envelope. Hope this helps! ~Wes

      • Incredibly helpful. Could you please kindly answer one more question?: At our family gathering, another cousin and her husband are travelling with their baby girl so won’t be attending our CNY celebration. Would/Should I give my Uncle and Aunt the red envelope that I would’ve given to my cousin and her husband for their baby or does a no show mean no red envelope? Thank you.

        • Hi Scout, the tradition focuses on exchanging red envelopes face-to-face during the Chinese New Year holiday season, so the question is when to deviate from that starting point. The answer depends on the closeness of your relationship. If you’re not close with your cousin and you don’t expect to see the family again soon, then no need to leave the gift with your aunt and uncle. If you are close with your cousin, but don’t expect to see them for a while, then I would leave the red envelope with them. Finally, and best of all, if you are close with your cousin but do expect to see them soon, say within the next month, then hold onto the red envelope and gift it later, even if it’s after the holiday is over. Hope this helps! ~Wes

          • Wes, so grateful for your replies. Thanks to your advice, I think I managed to impress my family at our CNY celebration! Please do continue to post. This is an awesome site. Much gratitude and Happy Chinese New Year!

          • Scout, your note made my day! I’m so glad it all worked out. Great to have you part of this community. ~Wes

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