The Giving of Red Envelopes
One of the favorite traditions of the Chinese New Year is Lai-See, or the giving of Red Envelopes. Inside the envelope is money, typically given to children as an omen of good fortune in the coming year. A Cantonese word, Lai See is known as Hong Bao in Mandarin Chinese.
The Lai See envelopes are red, which in China is symbolic of courage, loyalty, success and fertility. These qualities are all attributes wished for in the New Year. Homemade or purchased commercially, the envelopes are also often decorated with traditional symbols of good luck, such as a golden dragon.
Lai See is most commonly given to children, but they are also shared with "junior" members of China's traditionally hierarchical society. An employer gives to his employees, for example, and married couples -- considered more "senior" -- give to their single friends. During the New Year, even restaurant patrons give their wait staff Lai see.
The amount of Lai See one receives depends largely on the financial capacity of the giver. HK$100 (approximately $13) is common for restaurant staff; children and single friends tend to receive a more generous envelope. Younger children receive less money than older ones. And everyone gives in even numbers, which are considered good luck, while odd numbers are used for gifts at funerals.
The money should be given in a single bill -- neither coins nor multiple bills are considered "respectable". All bills are crisp and new, a sign of respect and affection. Giving the Lai See not only grants good luck to the receiver, but also to the giver, a karmic turn of play that encourages generosity.
Lai See envelopes are ubiquitous at the New Year, but they are also traditionally given at weddings and birthdays. The origin of the Lai See can likely be traced back to the Qing Dynasty, when the elderly gave their children a gift of coins threaded with a red string. The advent of the printing press saw envelopes replace the coins.
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