We usually 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 red, shiny holiday gift (or 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 that traditionally use the lunisolar calendar (basically, a system that determines months and dates based on sun and moon cycles). So because of that, the Lunar New Year might start on any date within that monthlong range.
Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on January 22 in 2023, BTW, 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 little red envelopes we mentioned before. What are they 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 on apps like Venmo too), 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?
“I heard that 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 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, and [people gave] the red envelopes to ward off evil spirits.”
The intent behind the envelopes is a bit more generalized now though. People tend to gift anyone from their children to friends to even coworkers and employees with the red envelopes. “They’re also meant to bring happiness and good fortune,” Yen explains. And after 2020 and 2021, we def could use a good dose of both of those.
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 stick in the envelopes. “Four is an unlucky number in Chinese culture,” explains Yen. So any amount that leads with the number four (4, 40, 400) is 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. 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 Gcash, Maya, Venmo, and Cash App (which, honestly, we will always accept). Just remember, for anyone sending a digital red envelope, 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 article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.