We asked: Why do we give gifts at Chinese New Year?

Jan 23 2020, 9:48 am

Show up to someone’s door on Chinese New Year with a bunch of red peonies, a bottle of liquor, or a red envelope, and you’ll be greeted with open arms. Show up holding a clock, a pear, white flowers, or anything in groups of three, and you’ll be swiftly shown the sidewalk.

Chinese New Year is all about giving the gift of good luck to loved ones through various auspicious gifts, food, and practices. To avoid some seriously awkward moments, there are some particular lucky and unlucky gifts that it pays to be aware of during the celebration.

What not to do

Chinese New Year at Parq/Parq Vancouver

First, let’s talk about practices. None of these lucky and unlucky omens are random — they’re all rooted in meaningful explanations.

For example, sweeping your house, taking out the trash, or dumping water outside your house would usually mean you were getting on with some household chores, but at Chinese New Year this symbolizes throwing away your luck. Got a hot date and thinking of getting a blowout? Not at CNY, where washing your hair means you’re washing away your wealth.

Other traditions are based around the sounds of phrases said in Mandarin. For example, the number four in Mandarin sounds similar to the word death. The words “giving a clock” sound akin to “attending a funeral” in the language, too.

So… envelopes?

Red envelopes/Shutterstock

So, how does this affect the gifts we give and receive? One of the most important traditions of Chinese New Year is the giving of the auspicious red envelope, known as “紅包” or “hóngbāo.” But why is this a tradition? We found out it’s much more meaningful than just an envelope of cash.

The practice is actually all about protecting children from evil spirits. The legend goes that an evil demon known as Sui used to taunt children if they fell asleep on New Year’s Eve. Every year, parents would try and get their children to stay awake through the night so the demon wouldn’t pay a visit. One year, a child was given eight coins to play with so they wouldn’t fall asleep, but they did, and so Sui showed up. Then something magical happened. A powerful light shined from the coins and drove the demon away.

And now, every year at Chinese New Year, it’s auspicious to give an envelope of cash to children (and colleagues too!) to ward off evil spirits and give good luck for the year ahead. Just make sure it’s bright red — the color of prosperity and good luck in China.

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