For Chinese New Year, Im sure youve seen them, there are these red packets called Lai See that you get. Either my parents or grandparents give them to me, and the colors represent good fortune. The red stands for good luck, and there is usually a gold Chinese character or animal which signifies wealth. The character will mainly stand for happiness, peace, or joy, or whatever, and the animal represents the Chinese zodiac for the New Year.
Sam explained to me how he receives these red packets for different family occasions, but most commonly for Chinese New Year. He said that it is usually the older generation who hands it out to the younger generations. He has known this custom since he was a very young boy when his parents or grandparents would always give them to him. In them he would receive either chocolate coins or an amount of money ending in an even digit.
Sam said that the significance of the colors were to wish you good luck and success for the New Year so that you start off with a good start. He said that the even amount of money was also symbolic of good luck, wishing the recipient financial stability for the future. He also mentioned that sometimes the packets would have pictures of Emperors or old famous Chinese figures, another symbolism to have the same success that those people did. He believed that the significance of the older generation giving to the younger generation was because the younger generation is still trying to come into adulthood and so it is a way for the elders to help out.
According to The Journal of Popular Culture, not only is generational difference a means to give out the red packets, but it can also be a status difference. For example, the married will give them to the unmarried, and senior managers give them to employees. Sius article also goes on to explain that if a traveler is visiting a friend with kids, even if the visitor does not know the children, it is considered bad luck if they do not bring red packets for their friends children. The visitor would be considered to not have lucky money to give away, and thus this would bring bad luck to that person (Red Packet).
I am familiar with the red packet commonly tied with the celebration of the Chinese New Year based on the lunar calendar. This festival is therefore a cyclical renewal and a means to start the New Year on the right foot. It would seem that the prominence of good luck symbolism is intended to rub off on the recipients so that this year will be filled with good luck and prosperity. Also, if you are so lucky to have extra money and good fortune to give away, it is a mark that your generosity will be rewarded in the next year and you can look forward to a bright future. This festival is full of reciprocating good luck probably so that the cycle will always continue for you and your loved ones.
Annotation: Siu, Kin Wai Michael. Red Packet: A Traditional Object in the Modern World.
The Journal of Popular Culture. 35.3 (2001): 103125. <http://www.blackwell-synergy.com.libproxy.usc.edu/action/showPdf?submitPDF=Full+Text+PDF+%284%2C836+KB%29&doi=10.1111%2Fj.0022-3840.2001.3503_103.x&cookieSet=1>.