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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!