Tradition – Chinese

Chinese New Year – Red Envelopes

For Chinese New Year, it is traditional that the elder members of the family, such as the aunts, uncles, and grandparents, give all the children in the family a gift.  This is most often given in a small red envelope, with a measure of money inside.  The envelope is small, maybe about three by five inches in size.  It is usually heavily embossed, with intricate gold artwork.  Traditional Chinese characters are often used, such as those for good luck, happiness, joy, or other such pleasant things.  Beasts which are favorably looked upon by the Chinese people, such as dragons, tigers, or phoenixes also occasionally adorn these envelopes.

I collected this piece of folklore from my maternal grandfather.  Like the last piece of folklore he explained to me, he told me he did not know who or from where this originated.  He stated that it is very widespread in China, having probably originated very long ago from that region.  He explained that this was part of starting the New Year “off right.”  The idea was that if one started the New Year by giving receiving a packet of money covered with symbols of good luck, that one would experience wealth and good fortune throughout the rest of the coming year.  Each aspect of the packet is symbolic.  First of all, the colors, red with predominantly gold artwork, are both colors representative of happiness and good luck.  The artwork is also symbolic; if a Chinese character is used, is most usually a phrase such as happiness, or good fortune.  If an animal is depicted, the meanings can cover a range of different things.  Perennially popular choices include the dragon, the tiger, or the phoenix.  The dragon, one of the most powerful beings in Chinese literature, represents absolute passion and elegance.  The tiger is a striking symbol of brute strength and power.  The magical phoenix, on the other hand, is the utmost profession of fortune, good luck, and divine favor.  Or, since there is a certain animal associated with each year according to the Chinese zodiac, these envelopes occasionally depict the appropriate zodiac animal for that year.

I spoke with my paternal grandfather about these Chinese New Year gifts and he confirmed their relevance.  However, as his English is not the best, it was difficult to get more detailed information about it from him.  He basically stated that these red envelopes were given by the older members of a family to the children to celebrate Chinese New Year.  This shows that this tradition was present in many different areas of China, as my paternal grandfather came from a rural Cantonese-speaking area, while my maternal grandfather spoke Mandarin, originating from a more urban area.

Indeed, a quick trip to Chinatown around the time of Chinese New Year will allow one to witness this tradition firsthand.  Around this time, any shop in Chinatown will sell these small red envelopes in massive quantities; in fact, even businesses who do not usually sell merchandise such as restaurants will often sell these red envelopes. The propagation of this custom is amazing; from personal experience, one may receive these red envelopes from multitudes of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even older cousins or family friends.  It seems everybody is intent on starting off the New Year with a generous traditional Chinese gift.