The Lunar New Year is coming. People will prepare to celebrate a new year in various ways, such as cleaning and decorating their houses, buying beautiful new clothes, and making special dishes. But the action that many young people and children expect and looks forward to the most is getting lucky money from their relatives. This action is called lì xì in Vietnamese. This has become a long-standing custom. I wondered when this custom appeared, what the meaning of this custom is, and if this is common practice only in Vietnamese culture. Now I have answers for these questions.

This custom is not only practiced in Vietnam. Other countries in Asia have similar customs to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  Lì xì in Vietnam is known as hóng bão in Mandarin, lei see in Cantonese, sae bae don in Korean and otoshidama in Japanese.  There are no clear sources to trace the origin of the Lì xì custom of giving money in envelopes around the time of the New Year. In China, during the Qin Dynasty, the elderly would thread coins with a red string to give to children to ward off evil spirits. The elderly believed these coins protected children from sickness and death in the upcoming year.

Now those coins are called lucky money. And lucky money is always put in red envelopes. The red color symbolizes good luck and is supposed to ward off evil spirits.

In Vietnam, lì xì is a lucky gift or lucky money. It is always contained in red envelopes. It is typically given to children by their relatives or their family’s guests. The amount of money contained in the envelope is usually an odd numbered amount.

In Southern China, hóngbão, or the giving of monetary gifts, is also known by a red envelope, just like Vietnam. But in the north, lucky money is not given in red envelopes. The amount of money contained in the envelope usually ends with an even digit, in accordance with Chinese beliefs-for instance 88 and 168 are both lucky numbers. Odd-numbered monetary gifts are traditionally associated with funerals. There is also a widespread tradition that money should not be given in fours, or the number four should not appear in the amount, such as 40, 400 and 444, because the pronunciation of the word "four" in sounds like the word "death".

On New Year’s Day, Japanese people also have a custom of giving money to children. This is called otoshidama.  The gifts are handed out in small-decorated envelopes called “pochibukuro”, similar to Chinese red envelopes. However, white envelopes are used instead of red envelopes. Japanese people believe the white color can help people avoid many bad things, such as evil spirits. Also, Japanese people always write the name of the receiver on the envelope. In the Edo period, wealthy families always gave out a small bag of mochi (rice cakes) and an orange to many poor families. In Japanese, the pronunciation of the word "orange" resembles that of the word "permanent". Therefore, the orange is a symbol for permanent flourishing.

In Korean, children wish their elders a Happy New Year by the saying “receive many New Year’s blessings” or “have a blessed New Year”. Their elders usually reward this gesture by giving their children pocket money in lucky bags, made with beautiful silk designs. In the past, parents gave out rice cakes and fruits to children instead.

This custom of giving gifts at New Year’s has been preserved in many countries. This custom is considered to be a beautiful tradition to welcome a new year. Many people believe that a small amount of money can bring good fortunes for everyone in the upcoming year. These small, lucky gifts can make us happy and feel excited as we celebrate the New Year with our families.

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