Understanding Red Envelope Giving Traditions during Lunar New Year

The tradition of giving red envelopes, 利事 "Lai See" in Cantonese and 紅包 "Hong Bao" in Mandarin, during Lunar New Year is not just about giving money; it's a meaningful gesture of luck and prosperity. Let's explore this tradition with some basic rules to understand who gives, who receives, and the general do's and don'ts.

Who gives red envelopes  🧧

Rule 1: If you're married 

    • If you're married, it's considered a rite of passage to give red envelopes filled with lucky money. If you're single (never been married) regardless of your age, you're typically on the receiving end of these red envelopes.
      • In Hong Kong, Toisan or Cantonese culture, couples will give 2 red envelopes (one from each person). But in the case you're widowed or divorced, you'll give 1 envelope instead of 2.
      • In Northern China and Taiwan culture, a couple will usually give 1 envelope together. 

    Rule 2: If you're older

    • Older married family members or friends traditionally give red envelopes to those younger than them, (unless they are married), with a strong emphasis on children, as a symbol of passing on luck and blessings. Usually you would give to your own children, nieces and nephews, and friends/acquaintances' children that you would see during this time period. If you don't see them during this time, you don't have to give. 
    • Sometimes even if you're single, you may give to a beloved niece or nephew or close friend's child, but this is generally up to the discretion of the giver.

    Rule 3: If you're a manager or have someone that provides a regular service for you

    • If you are a manager, you'd typically give to your employees. Or if you receive regular services from someone (ie. doorman, cleaning person, nanny or teacher) you would often give red envelopes as a token of gratitude and good wishes.

    Rule 4: If you have elderly parents/grandparents

    • Not a hard and fast rule, but sometimes adult children might give red envelopes to their aging parents or grandparents, reflecting respect and gratitude.

    When to give red envelopes

    • New Year Period: The ideal time for giving red envelopes is on New Year's Eve, when most people gather for (团圆 tuán yuán) Reunion Dinner aka New Year's Eve dinner. But the giving period can extend through the first 15 days of the Lunar New Year and sometimes very shortly after. Note that Lunar New Year falls on a different day every year because it's based on the lunar calendar not a western calendar. Typically if you don't see someone during this time period, you do not have to give.
    • In the Workplace: For employers, it’s common to give these envelopes on the last working day before the holiday starts.

    How much to give

      • The amount in the envelope depends on your relationship with the recipient and your financial means. But usually you'd give what you'd typically spend on a holiday gift for them. It's more about the gesture than the amount. If you are an employer giving to an employee, this is treated like an annual bonus, so often 1 month's worth of pay.
      • Lucky Numbers: Even numbers are preferred because an odd number represents that you'll be forever alone. It's also popular for people to give in symbolic amounts with numbers 8 because in Chinese, 8 ('ba') sounds like the word for prosperity ('fa').
      • Avoid 4s: But make sure you avoid the number 4 as it sounds like the word for death ('si') in Chinese, and is considered unlucky. (ie. $4, $40, $400) Note: If you're a couple and you give 2 red envelopes, it's okay if you put $20 in each envelope, which together equals $40. As long as you don't put a denomination of 4 in a single envelope you're okay!

      *FUN FACT* In China, there's a growing trend of people giving red envelopes digitally through apps like WeChat.

      Where to buy red envelopes

        • You can usually get red envelopes for free from your local bank or purchase them at stores that sell Asian goods, or online.

        The General Do's and Dont's

        • Always receive envelopes with both hands and express your appreciation. Sometimes adults will "pretend to" decline at first in order to show your consideration for the gift giver, but then finally accept with thanks.

        • Give new bills that are crisp and clean, never wrinkled or dirty bills or coins, which are considered bad form. Be sure to head to the bank early because often times they may run out of new bills around this time period.

        • Never open the envelope in front of the giver.

        Understanding and following these traditions helps you to participate respectfully and joyfully in the Lunar New Year tradition of red envelope exchange. It's a practice rich in cultural meaning, celebrating luck, prosperity, and the importance of family and social bonds. Happy Lunar New Year! 🧧

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