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chinese women holding red luck envelopes

The Colour of Luck: Understanding the Tradition of Giving Red Envelopes

During special occasions, the sight of a red envelope evokes several positive feelings for many children and even adults not only in China but in other Asian countries as well. The feel of that crisp envelope is enough to make anyone feel happy and excited. These unique envelopes are widely distributed and given to children and unmarried adults as gifts during special events like weddings and Chinese New Year. They often come in a combination of red packet designs and gold colours in Singapore, both of which are believed to symbolise luck and the ability to ward off evil spirits. If you’re lucky, the contents of these envelopes, which may be referred to as “ang pow,” “lai see,” or “hung-bao,” may amount to a considerable sum of money. But, while the amount of cash inside may be appealing, it’s actually the envelope itself that holds more importance for many cultures due to the association of the colours red and gold with blessings and prosperity. Here are some facts you should know about these symbolic red envelopes.

Powerful Coins from a Legend

This custom of giving away red envelopes with cash as gifts to friends and family members is believed to have originated from old stories related to the celebration of Chinese New Year. According to the legend, a demon named “Sui” used to scare children off while they sleep on New Year’s Eve. So, many parents tried their very best to protect their children and make sure they stay awake throughout the night. One New Year, a young child received eight coins to play with him so he’ll be able to stay awake all night. However, it became difficult for him to battle sleepiness, so he eventually dozed off with the coins laying on his pillow. So, when the demon Sui appeared and tried to touch the sleeping child, the coins, which were believed to be the eight Immortals in disguise, created a powerful beam of light to protect the child and drive Sui away.

Crisp Paper Bills Only

The custom of giving red envelopes as gifts comes with a number of unwritten rules, one of which is that only clean, crisp paper bills should be put inside them. This is why days and weeks before New Year’s, it’s very common to see long lines of people at banks trying to get their old and crumpled bills exchanged into new ones.

“Four” is a No-no!

number four in a green background The number “4” is believed to be extremely unlucky in Chinese culture. That’s why the amount of money inserted in red envelopes should never include this unlucky number – no 4, 40, or 400 amounts, and so on. This is because in the Chinese language, the number “four” sounds similar to how the word for “death” is pronounced. So, instead, amounts including the number 8, a lucky number, is preferred. Lastly, traditions indicate that children should kneel whenever they receive a red envelope from older members of the family. This is still widely practised in many areas in China. Also, these special envelopes should be received with both hands. As part of courtesy, never open the envelope in front of the giver.

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