My sister, cousins and I spoke only English at home, but we busted out our clumsy, off-key Cantonese (the Chinese dialect our families speak) to recite the traditional new year’s greeting kung hei fat choy, which means “wishing you happiness and prosperity.” Once uttered, this magic phrase brought a shiny red-and-gold envelope into our eagerly awaiting hands.
When is lucky money given?
Lucky money envelopes—called lai see in Cantonese and hong bao in Mandarin—are given to children and, in some places, seniors in the first two weeks of the Lunar New Year, up until the first full moon, a day called the Spring Festival or Chinese Lantern Festival (this year, Feb. 5).
Typically, once you get married, it’s your turn to hand out envelopes, and you’ll receive fewer yourself. There are no hard and fast rules, though—unmarried adults might also give and receive lai see. People often give lucky money to their service providers. My parents, for example, bring red envelopes for the servers at their regular dim sum spot.
How much money are we talking?
In my youth, I received $5 or $10 from each relative and $20 from each parent. Generally, the closer your relationship is to the recipient, the more lucky money you give, but the amount is less important than the spirit in which it’s given—in Chinese culture, the colour red is a symbol of happiness and good luck.
Lucky money isn’t limited to Lunar New Year. We also give and receive lai see for special occasions like birthdays, weddings, graduations and the birth of a baby. The envelopes now come in a wide range of colours and designs. You can even get branded new year’s envelopes from some of Canada’s big banks, while you’re picking up the crisp new bills to put inside them (giving old, wrinkly cash is poor etiquette). And in Asia, you can send digital “red packets” via WeChat or AliPay.
What else to gift for Chinese New Year?
When visiting relatives, many Chinese families bring traditional new year’s sweets and snacks. Oranges and clementines are also popular gifts.
Lunar New Year has become highly commercialized, even in countries outside of Asia. My inbox is crammed with emails from lifestyle and luxury brands promoting Year of the Rabbit merchandise—everything from handbags, jewellery and sweats to cosmetics, Lego sets and yoga mats, some more considered than others.
Treat yourself or a friend if you like, but don’t feel pressured to buy. In my experience, new year’s gifts aren’t part of the tradition—and I hope it stays that way, especially since the Lunar New Year comes after the spend-y holiday season that includes Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.