Citrus trees line most doorways and our hotel set a gorgeous, giant cherry tree with lai see (red envelopes) hanging from the branches in the lobby.
What Is the Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year?
Chinese New Year, which is sometimes also called Lunar New Year, is the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar and is celebrated by more than a billion people around the world.
Celebrations typically last 16 days, from New Year’s Eve to the fifteenth day of the new year, and include family gatherings, lots of delicious food, gifts, fireworks, and well wishes.
It’s a time of hope, and people are focused on setting the stage for a new year filled with happiness, good fortune, and prosperity.
Most of the rituals and traditions associated with the holiday involve a clean slate and new beginnings.
There’s no set date for Chinese New Year, and the first day of the year can be anywhere from January 21 to February 20. That’s because it the date of Chinese New Year is calculated based on the lunar calendar.
The Significance of Chinese Hong Bao or Lai See
When we have held our own celebrations since relocating back to the United States, a question I’ve been asked frequently is, “What is the Chinese new year red envelope meaning?”
One of the most well-known symbols of the new year are the Chinese lai see in Cantonese (also known as hong bao in Mandarin), which are small red envelopes filled with lucky money.
Lai see are an iconic symbol of Chinese New Year, and a way to build and cement relationships between family and friends at the start of a fresh year.
Hong bao are the most common gift given during Chinese New Year, though they’re also given for birthdays and weddings, and on other special occasions.
The History of Lai See and Hong Bao
The red envelopes are usually decorated with symbols of good luck and prosperity, though no one knows exactly how this happy tradition came about.
The Legend of Ang Pow from the Song dynasty does suggest one possible origin. In the story, an evil, dragon-like creature was terrorizing the people of a village called Chang-Chieu and no one had been able to drive it off or kill it. The villagers lived in fear until one day, when a young man named Ang Pow slayed the creature with his magic saber named Ma Dao. Out of gratitude and in the hope of warding off evil into the future, the elders of Chang-Chieu gave Ang Pow a red envelope filled with money. From that day forward, Chinese lai see were seen as a way of driving off unlucky spirits.
The practice of giving hong bao during Chinese New Year probably originated in the Qing Dynasty. Previously, during the Manchu-founded Ming Dynasty, most people belonged to the Han clan.
In 1636, the Qing Dynasty was established and many Han people (whose traditions included celebrating the New Year) were appointed into government positions.
The Qing emperors respected Han culture, and traditions like giving children coins tied together by red thread for New Years were gradually adopted widely. The practice eventually evolved into the red envelopes that are given today.
Chinese Lai See and Hong Bao Envelopes in the Present
Typically, red envelopes are given by older people and married couples to children and young single adults.
Parents usually give them to children, leaving lai see and two tangerines with leaves still on by a child’s bedside on New Year’s Eve.
Grandparents will also give hong bao to their grandchildren when they visit to celebrate the new year.
Married adults will sometimes give lai see to unmarried relatives as a way of demonstrating that they’re in a place to share their blessings, and adult children may also give red envelopes containing a generous gift to parents as a sign of respect.
Hong bao packets may also be given during visits to the homes of family and friends on New Year’s Day as a way of wishing them good luck in the year ahead. These are typically placed in the Tray of Togetherness. And employers often give their employees red envelopes filled with about a month’s pay at the start of the celebration and a smaller lai see when they return to work.
Once practiced only in China, the tradition of giving red envelopes to mark the beginning of the new year has spread into Vietnam and Japan, and many families celebrate the Lunar New Year in the United States, too.
Wherever they are given, lai see always contain an auspicious amount of money and are never marked with the giver’s name. The bills (never coins) inside hong bao should always be new, and even amounts are typical — especially in denominations including 8s (which rhymes with luck) and 9s (for a long life).
Tip: Amounts including 4s should not be given, as the word for four is similar to the word for death.
My Experiences with Lai See / Hong Bao
You don’t see too many red envelopes handed out around La Jolla, but sharing my own experiences with them makes me feel more connected to my own time in Asia. I’m not Chinese and only experienced Chinese New Year in Hong Kong for five years, but it was so much fun. I think of that period of my life often, and the Chinese New Year red envelope meaning feels very personal to me.
Some red envelope trivia that I remember from living in Hong Kong:
- Lai see are given out during social and family gatherings such as weddings or during holidays such as Chinese New Year.
- The colors red and gold symbolize prosperity and good luck.
- Lai see envelopes are traditionally handed from a senior to a junior. My husband always gave a generous lai see envelope to his staff, but it wasn’t appropriate for him to receive one.
- The bills on the inside should be crisp and brand new. At most Hong Kong banks, it’s possible to pick up prepackaged lai see with new bills sealed inside.
- The amount in a lai see varies depending on the relationship between the giver and the receiver.
- In Cantonese, the word “four” sounds similar to the word for death so denominations of HKD 40 and HKD 400, for example, aren’t typically given.
Other Ways to Observe the Lunar New Year
Travel is a big part of Chinese New Year. More than three billion people travel during the celebration — in fact, it’s considered one of the largest human migrations on earth.
In Asia, transportation networks on the ground and in the air are stretched to capacity as people take trips both short and long to spend time with their loved ones.
Food is another important part of Chinese New Year celebrations. Whenever possible, families gather together on New Year’s Eve for a traditional meal of foods symbolizing abundance and prosperity.
Many of these foods are chosen because they have auspicious shapes or lucky names. Usually, there are eight courses (remember, eight is a lucky number), and often one of these courses will be a whole fish or a hot pot.
Other foods frequently served during the Lunar New Year include dumplings (which resemble ancient money), noodles that are left long to symbolize longevity, small cakes made of sticky rice whose name, nian gao, sounds like ‘rising higher’, and mandarin oranges, which are a symbol of good luck.
The Lunar New Year Fireworks Display in Hong Kong is a big event, and people set off their own red firecrackers, too. Traditionally, firecrackers were used to ward off evil spirits, and today they’re set off to bring good luck. People may leave the red paper wrapping on the ground for a day or two after setting off their firecrackers, so as not to sweep away the good luck.
Here’s a link to a few photos I took around Hong Kong during Chinese New Year 2009, Year of the Ox.
Do you want to have your own Chinese New Year celebration? Lai see can be bought at 99 Ranch market in San Diego and other Asian markets.
Don’t forget there are plenty of FREE Chinese New Year printables kids will enjoy.
Kung Hei Fat Choy, my friends.