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Chinese New Year Custom of Lai See Gifts

Updated on April 3, 2009

Little Gifts of Money in Red Envelopes

Lai See is the custom of giving a gift of money in a special red envelope during the New Year's celebration. In the Chinese culture red is a lucky color. Both red and gold (which represents wealth) are popular colors for the New Year celebrations.

The combination of the red envelope and money represent a wish for good luck and good fortune in the coming year as red represents good luck and gold represents money and wealth. While the amount of money in the envelope is usually small (a single, low denomination bill – never coins) it symbolizes a wish for good fortune. Many believe that good luck will come to both the giver and the recipient of the Lai See.

The Lai See custom entails older relatives giving the special red envelopes with money inside to young children in the family. In many traditional families children do not receive an allowance like children in the West so the gift provides them pocket money which they can spend themselves.

Lai See Customs

In addition to children, married couples will also give red envelopes with money to unmarried people and some business and managers have started giving gifts of red envelopes with money to their staff.

Lai See is not a general giving of gifts but rather a custom in which some people are givers (married people, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, bosses, etc.) and others are recipients (children, single people, employees, etc.).

In prosperous Hong Kong the Lai See custom is very popular and lots of money exchanges hands each New Year. Many people not only have people they intend to give a red envelope to but also carry spare red envelopes with money in them for situations where they meet someone by chance such as running into an old friend who is single on the street or at a party. Unlike Christmas gifts on which you usually write the recipient's name, it is not the custom with Lai See to put names on the envelope. The idea is to have a few extra envelopes with money so that when you run into someone unexpectedly you can give them an envelope and make it look as if your intention had been to look them up and give them the gift of Lai See.

Also in Hong Kong the custom is to use only new bills. This puts a strain on the banks and especially on the central bank which has to print thousands of new bills each year. People spend the weeks before New Year visiting banks to get newly printed bills. Many banks announce when they will have new bills and people line up outside before they open in order to get some of the new currency. The government has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get people to use existing bills rather than new ones. But many are reluctant to do so for fear that it will appear that they forgot about a person or, worse still, did not plan to give a gift to someone until they suddenly discovered that they would be encountering that person during the New Year's celebrations and then just took a bill from their wallet and put it into a red envelope.

The amount of money in an envelope is usually just a single, small denomination, bill but, because effort is required in order to obtain new bills, the use of new bills conveys the message that the giver thinks enough of the recipient to go to the extra effort required to obtain a special bill. In this sense it is the thought behind the gift rather than the value of the gift that counts.


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    • profile image

      DavidLivingston 7 years ago

      Nice read. Thanks for posting this.

    • jim.sheng profile image

      Dalriada Books Ltd 9 years ago from UK

      Thanks, I asked a silly question, you answered me with the whole currency developing history. I have learned a lot from your hub. Thanks again.

    • Chuck profile image

      Chuck Nugent 9 years ago from Tucson, Arizona

      jim.sheng - a "bill" as used above refers to a single piece of paper money that is worth the value that is specified on it. In the United States a five dollar bill ($5) is a piece of paper currency that is worth $5.

      I suspect that paper currency (of any nation) is referred to as bills is a result of the fact that the word "bill" also denotes a statement or listing of money owed such as the "doctor bill", "electric bill", etc. In centuries past when people used gold to pay for goods and services they often stored their gold with a shopkeeper who had a secure place to store it (this would have been before locks were common in private homes) and the storekeeper would give them a receipt for the gold the person had left with him. In time it became more convenient to simply leave the gold in storage and pay with the receipt or write a note authorizing the person from whom you purchased the good to collect the appropriate amount of gold from the shopkeeper holding your gold. This note became, in effect, a "bill" that showed the money owed to the holder of the note and which allowed the holder of the note to present to the shopkeeper to collect his gold. In time people found it easier to simply pay with the notes or bills rather than carry gold around with them.

      When governments started printing paper money (see my Hub entitled ), most initially backed their paper money with gold (also silver in the case of the United States) with people having the option of either using the paper bills or exchanging them at a bank for gold or silver coins worth an equivalent amount.

      Today, most governments no longer allow people to exchange paper money for gold or silver (in the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt did away with issuing gold coins and ceased allowing pople to exchange paper money for gold in the 1930s and a later administration in the 1960s did the same with silver) but, despite the fact that paper currency can no longer be exchanged for gold or silver they continue to be known as "bills".

    • jim.sheng profile image

      Dalriada Books Ltd 9 years ago from UK

      Excuse me, but what is bill?

    • creatingwealth profile image

      creatingwealth 10 years ago

      Nice custom. I like it. :)

    • Moonmaiden profile image

      Fayme Zelena Harper 11 years ago from Lucerne Valley, CA

      I needed this hub a few years ago when we didn't know you weren't supposed to give coins. Even though you didn't mention it, most of the red envelopes we were given at a TET festival had $2.00 bills in them.