Usually, we think of December as the final month of gift giving, and then January 1 comes and it’s all over. But as everyone who celebrates the Lunar New Year knows, there’s one more shiny red holiday gift (or in this case, envelope!) to open on…well, sometime between January 21 and February 20.
In case you missed it, here’s some quick background: While Americans typically refer to the holiday as Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year—also commonly called Spring Festival—is actually celebrated by several Asian countries and throughout the Asian diaspora, aka anywhere that traditionally uses the lunisolar calendar (a system that determines months and dates based on sun and moon cycles). Because of that, the Lunar New Year might start on any date within that monthlong range.
Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on February 10 this year FYI, marks the beginning of a 15-day extravaganza filled with tons of super-fun (and delicious) traditions, from lucky dumplings to celebratory parades to those aforementioned little red envelopes (also known as hóngb?o).
The tradition of giving hóngb?o can be observed at Lunar New Year celebrations worldwide, and it's even been adopted during celebrations of the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr. So what exactly are these envelopes filled with, you ask? Oh, just some cash that’s meant to send you into the new year feeling prosperous and protected. “The person giving you the envelope is wishing you good luck for the new year,” says Ying Yen, executive director of the New York Chinese Cultural Center.
If you want to give the gift of prosperity to everyone you know (and, yes, keep this tradition alive virtually as well), scroll on. Ahead is everything you need to know about the Chinese New Year red envelope tradition so you can properly enjoy your upcoming Lunar New Year festivities.
Where does this specific Lunar New Year red envelope tradition come from?
“The tradition originated from a story of a demon named Sui who would scare children when they were asleep,” says Yen. “As the legend goes, there was a child who was given coins [wrapped in red paper] to play with to stay awake but fell asleep. When Sui came to the child, the coins shone so brightly that the light scared Sui away."
Those coins became known as "Yasuiqian," aka "suppressing Sui money," and now to this day, people tend to gift red envelopes with money inside to anyone, from their children to friends to even colleagues. In Chinese culture, certain colors are considered more auspicious than others, and red's the luckiest shade of them all. According to the Chinese Five Elements Theory, the shade represents the element of fire, and flames symbolizes happiness, vitality, and good fortune. What great vibes to have at the top of the year.
So, how much $ should you stick in the red envelopes?
The envelopes usually contain straight cash, Yen confirms. So yeah, definitely stick to tradition on that one. In terms of how much to include in the red envelopes, it’s completely your call, she says. Seems straightforward, right?
Well, there is one thing that you should absolutely remember when it comes to choosing how much money to put in the envelopes. “Four is an unlucky number in Chinese culture,” explains Yen. So any dollar amounts that lead with the number four (4, 40, 400) are a definite no-go.
Is there a special way to receive an envelope to ensure good luck?
“When presented with a red envelope, you should [always] receive it with both hands and say 'Thank you!' and "Happy New Year!’” Yen says. And while we all love to see our loved ones’ reactions to our thoughtful gifts, watching someone open their envelope is actually a huge faux pas. “Never open the envelope in front of the person who gave it to you,” she adds. Another fun fact? In some areas, children will actually kneel when they get their hóngb?o from older folks in the family.
Also! You'll want to make sure that the cash inside of your envelope isn't crumpled up or worn down. Grab crisp, new bills—it's considered bad form to gift any other kind. Take notes, everyone, we need all the luck!
Do you have to exchange red envelopes in person?
Nope! As we all know a little too well by now, things can still be a bit iffy when it comes to large gatherings and celebrations. So whether you’re not quite ready to connect with your friends and fam in person or you’re trying to exchange some long-distance envelopes and celebrate the Lunar New Year virtually, Yen notes that gifting red envelopes digitally has become more of a thing, especially during pandemic times.
If both you and your recipient happen to use the texting app WeChat, there’s a built-in feature specifically made for exchanging these red envelopes on New Year’s Day. All you have to do is click the red envelope icon, include your message, choose a dollar amount, then send. Super cute! If not, you can always stick with direct deposits through apps like Venmo, Zelle, or Cash App (which, honestly, we will always accept). People have even started to use this virtual gifting option as an excuse to send some $ to celebs they like. (If you find Olivia Rodrigo's Venmo @ and care to share, we won't stop you).
Whether you're sending red envelopes either digitally or IRL, Yen encourages everyone celebrating the Lunar New Year to keep the positive intentions behind these envelopes in mind. “I hope people appreciate the meaning just as much as, if not more than, the money in it."
* This story originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by Cosmo.ph editors.