Red Envelopes for Chinese New Year
by Daphne Chiang-Ratke
While I was dusting my bookshelves the other morning, I came across a red envelope that I received from a girlfriend several years ago at a Chinese New Year’s celebration in Berlin. The envelope—with the character 馬 (pronounced Ma, meaning horse) printed on it—is special because that year was the Year of the Horse, and my friend’s last name is also Ma (Horse). I’ve kept this red envelope and the two-Euro coin inside it as a fond memory of one of my Chinese New Years in Germany.
For the young me in Taiwan, the highlight and the most joyous moment of Chinese New Year came after the sumptuous Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner, when my father brought out a stack of red envelopes (Hong Bao in Mandarin, Lai See in Cantonese). The new banknotes in the red envelopes were the reason for my excitement.
The smell of freshly printed banknotes is one of my childhood memories of Chinese New Year. We only put new banknotes inside the red envelopes, because giving dirty or wrinkled banknotes is in bad taste and might bring bad luck. In the week before Chinese New Year, many people stand in long queues at banks to exchange old banknotes for new ones.
Actually, the significance of the red envelope is the red paper, not the banknotes inside. Wrapping lucky money in a red envelope bestows even more happiness and blessings on the recipient. Therefore, it is impolite to open a red envelope in front of the person who gave it to you.
The color red symbolizes good luck and prosperity in Chinese and other East Asian cultures. Gong Xi Fa Cai in Mandarin (Gong Hei Fat Choy in Cantonese) is a typical way to wish others prosperity on Chinese New Year’s and literally translates as “wishing you enlarge your wealth.” That’s what we said to our parents or anyone who might give us a red envelope.
Parents give their children red envelopes on Chinese New Year’s Eve as a symbol of their love and blessings. The tradition also has to do with the legend of Nian, the terrible monster who lived in a mountain. Nian would come down at the end of the year and terrorize people and animals and even kill them all. People discovered that the monster was frightened by loud noises, bright lights, and the color red; hence, children were given red paper to protect them from the monster.
Traditionally, red envelopes are also given by married adults to young unmarried relatives, by adult children to their parents, and by employers to employees. Although the red envelope is unquestionably a symbol of Chinese New Year, red envelopes are also given for weddings, birthdays, and other special occasions.