Red Envelopes to Cast Out Spirits

“You know those red Chinese envelopes?  Like, my mom would, like, hang them upside-down, like when we moved into the house, we, like, put money inside and put it in all the rooms, like, to, like, I don’t know, so the spirits will just, like, take the money and just not haunt the house.  And then my dad would be like, “Someone left money!”  And took it all down, and my mom was like, “Fucking asshole!”  And she put it all back up.”

With parents from different parts of the world—her father from Puerto Rico and her mother from China—my informant has been raised with a mix of customs.  This one in particular is a Chinese custom meant to cast out any bad spirits in a new house.  She tells me that this is done as soon as you move in so the spirits do not dwell where you live.  The hanging of the red, money-filled envelopes serves as an offering to the spirits—a bargain, if you will—that pays the spirits to leave the home alone.  The envelopes are red because red is the color of good luck in Chinese culture, and the reason the envelopes are hung upside-down is because it is acting in part of the tradition of hanging the Chinese character 福 (fu) which mean “luck” or “fortune” upside-down as a play on words.  To say, 福到了(fu dao le) means that the good luck or good fortune has arrived.  But 倒 (dao) means to “fall down,” and since it is a pun on the word for “arrive” (到), the Chinese play on the word so that the character 福 hung upside-down is symbolically saying that the luck has already arrived.  So everything about the casting out spirits from the house has to do with luck in one form or the other, implying that the family hopes that by living in this house, good luck will come to them.

I also find the side note my informant had tacked on the end—the part concerning her Puerto Rican father taking down the red envelopes because he saw money inside.  I think the distinction between cultures and what different cultures presume to be “lucky” is made very obvious in this example.  Since my informant’s parents are not from the same cultural backgrounds, there is a culture barrier of sorts.  Though my informant’s father was focusing on the money, my informant’s mother got worked up enough to scold him for disturbing the ritual she was trying to do to bring good luck to the house.  It is clear that my informant’s father did not practice the same custom, so it meant little to him; but the completion of the ritual was important enough to my informant’s mother that she stuffed the red envelopes again and hung them back up.