What’s a Red Envelope?
Thousands of years ago, Chinese people were gifting each other coins strung together with string as symbols of good luck. But probably almost immediately, an alternative gift was sought once it was agreed upon that strings of coins were pretty inconvenient, heavy and cumbersome, making way for the now pervasive tradition of gifting red envelopes.
If you’re Chinese or in a community with any number of Chinese people, you’ll see them all the time. Weddings, Chinese New Year… a small decorated red envelope will be passed on to an excited recipient or slipped into a greeting card. Red envelopes play a prevalent and ongoing part in Chinese cultural celebrations, as well as other cultures with large concentrations of ethnically Chinese populations, like Vietnam or Malaysia, and in America. Red envelopes are symbolic envelopes with money gifts enclosed, given at special occasions including Chinese (Lunar) New Year, weddings, birthdays, graduations and other celebrations—and are called “hong bao” (Mandarin for “red packet”) or “lai see” (Cantonese for the same thing) but in the U.S., most folks just refer to them as “red envelopes.” Anecdotally speaking, red envelopes are among the easiest, most visible traditions that Chinese American families continue passing down from generation to generation.
Traditionally, red envelopes are given from elders to anyone younger, and from married people to single people. However, many modern families just use the red envelope as a way to present money gifts.
It’s said that giving a red envelope is like giving someone a little bit of good luck and fortune, which in turn brings a little luck back to the gift giver too! Karma in its truest form.
The Meaning of It All...In a Nut Shell
The color red dominates Chinese design, art and symbolism. It represents good luck, joy and powerful representations of fire (it’s also the color of choice for the modern Chinese government). Envelopes are traditionally decorated with characters, symbols and calligraphy communicating luck, fortune and happiness. This whole package of a hong bao is meant to convey positive “energy” to its recipient.
Symbolism is a big part of all things cultural, whether it’s Chinese culture and literally all other cultures. We’ll share more with you on symbolism… stay tuned!
Top image: Good Fortune Red Envelope (left) and Vintage Mod Red Envelope (right)
Bottom images: Plenty of Goodness Red Envelope (top) and Vintage Mod Red Envelope (bottom)
What's the best red envelope design you've ever received? We’d love to hear more. Comment below!