When I told my American friends that I put money in an envelope and gave it to my friends as Spring Festival gifts, they said, “Ah, giving money to you friends as gifts? It is awkward!”
Actually, it is a custom in China. Hong Bao, or Red Envelope, which contains money, are considered good luck and fortune.
There are some interesting legends about it.
In ancient China, parents wrapped money with red paper, and put it under their children’s pillow. When devils and demons are going to hurt them, the money is considered a “bribe”, so that those evils would not hurt their children, but take the money.
In another more interesting legend, there is a monster called Sui (Even today, there is a word “Gui Gui Sui Sui” to describe a person is going to do something evil secretly. It appeared on the New Year’s Eve, and would touch children’s forehead. Children would get scared and cry, and then they would get a fever and become silly. That’s why many parents would stay up on the New Year’s Eve, to keep an eye on Sui.
There was an old couple who had a son. On one New Year’s Eve, they were afraid of Sui to hurt their son, so they took out eight coins and played them with the son. The son was tired and ready to sleep, so they put those coins in a red envelope, and put it under the son’s pillow.
At night, there was an evil wind blowing out candles. Sui was here. It was going to touch the son’s forehead, and suddenly it found out something shining under the pillow. Sui got scared and ran away.
The next day, the old couple told everyone about it, and that’s why there are Hong Bao, red envelope for children during the Spring Festival.
In reality, red envelopes started in Han Dynasty (202 B.C. –220 A.D.). During that time, some decorative accessories were made into shapes of coins. People wore it to avoid evils. Patterns like dragons, phoenixes, stars, fishes, were carved on it, to express good wishes.
In Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), red envelops were popular in the imperial palace. According to Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography, (published in 1084, in the form of a chronicle), Concubine Yang gave birth to a son, and Emperor Xuanzong (685-762 AD) went to visit her during the spring festival. He gave Concubine Yang and the newborn prince “golden, silver, coins”.
The first written record of the money in the red envelope appeared in Qing Dynasty (1644 -1912AD). According Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking, “coins were put together and linked by a colorful thread, and made into a shape of a dragon. It was put at the end of a bed, and people name it ‘Age Money’. Senior people gave it to kids …”
Personally, when I was a child in 1980s and 1990s, I got red envelops from my parents, their friends, and senior relatives. It was about RMB 100 (US$15) each. Always, it was not my decision to spend it or not, because my mother, who was in charge of the finance of the family, would always tell me, “I will take care of it.”
Nowadays, I become an adult, and I have nieces, nephews, and my friends’ have children (Luckily I don’t have any children yet). I am the one who has to send red envelopes during the spring festival.
Usually each red envelope contains RMB300 (US$47) now. Some people will also put some good-luck money like RMB666 or RMB888 to express wishes.
I should always say, how time flies! And look at this inflation!
Anyway, Happy New Year!