Chinese New Year is perhaps the biggest and most important holiday of the year. It usually occurs in January or February and the exact date varies from year to year depending on the Lunar calendar.
In Taiwan, the preparations begin with extensive house cleaning and shopping. Then on the eve of Chinese New Year, people finish work early and go home for a family dinner. This means that shops and places of work, if they are open at all, close very early (around mid-day) and lots of families hit the highways heading (usually) to the south and center of the island.
The first day of Chinese New Year is typically the family day as everyone feasts, exchanges envelopes and gifts, and wishes everyone good health, good fortune and good luck in the coming year. The second day is the traditional day for the family to return to the wife’s home to see her parents, and in traditional times, was very important as it was one of the few times in the year when a wife would be able to see her parents.
Well, Nina Simmons only partly explains the significance of these envelopes. Indeed, the tradition may vary as you cross the continent of China. Check out the blog but beware: what she says may not apply where YOU are! Some of the words and details are a little different in Taiwan, for sure, esp. as much of the New Year festivities take place at home, not in restaurants.
These red envelopes are indeed stuffed with cash, in even amounts and can be given at weddings and Chinese New Year. Amounts with 6’s or 8’s are usually considered extra lucky. Typically, people will queue up at the bank to get fresh notes, too. I went to the bank on Friday to get some red NT$100 notes but they were all gone! Of course, being red explains why they are so sought after. A nice stack of red 100 dollar notes in a red envelope creates a much bigger wow! than even putting NT$1000 in the envelope. The red envelope even carries a sweet scent.
These envelopes are given to family members who are either older or younger than the giver: so children always get one from each person, and parents who are older/retired can also be given the envelopes by their children. The general rule seems to be those who are more able give the money to those who are less financially able. In public situations, politicians can give them out at New Year, and the President typically gives out hundreds. Employers typically give them, as well, to hard working employees, though this can cause resentment if amounts vary.
The money, though, often ends up in the hands of parents who ‘look after’ the envelopes and dole out the money as needed. In some families, the children only get a little of the cash to spend as they wish; in others, the children are encouraged to put it in the bank; and in still others, the money is used to pay for schooling, clothes, and many of the necessities that raising children entails.
It’s a great tradition: but one that needs to be handled with care. If you give money to the wrong person, you may offend them. It could be seen as ‘belittling’. So gifts of money like this need to be in response to particular situations.