Lunar New Year is around the corner, this year falling on February 5. On this day, the year of the dog closes and we will begin the year of the pig — the twelfth sign of the Chinese zodiac, signifying wealth and prosperity.
But regardless of the year, the Chinese New Year celebration has another financial component that you may have heard of before: the red envelope.
Every Lunar New Year, it’s a tradition in Chinese and other Southeast Asian societies to gift a red packet or envelope — called hóngbāo in Mandarin — filled with a monetary gift. Also used to celebrate births or weddings, the tradition is common across China and other parts of Asia, as well as countries and communities that have considerable Asian populations.
The red envelope custom is ancient and rooted in myth. According to the legend, a demon called Sui terrorized sleeping children on New Year’s Eve, and so parents tried to keep kids awake to keep them safe.
One night, a child was given eight coins to play with in order to stay awake, but eventually got bored and fell asleep. The demon, Sui, appeared and attempted to harm the child, but the coins emitted a strong light that scared off the demon. According to this tale, these coins were actually Eight Immortals in disguise who protected the child.
Today, the red envelope is a symbolic continuation of these eight coins, symbolizing good luck and protection from evil spirits. The envelopes were traditionally meant for children, but today they are given to friends, family, and even coworkers. They can be sent digitally — largely popularized on the Chinese messaging app WeChat — and there is even a red envelope emoji that you can send to your friends.
Over time, the tradition has moved outside of China and is now practiced globally in different cultural contexts. Though sometimes the envelope color is changed, it is still a positive gesture generally symbolizing well wishes.
If you decide you’d like to send someone money this Lunar New Year, just make sure that the amount doesn’t include the number four, since it’s bad luck, according to Chinese myth. However, the number eight is the luckiest and is said to bring prosperity to those who receive it.
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