Chinese New Year is just around the corner, which means stores are blasting Chinese New Year music, hanging up decorations, and of course, giving out ang pao packets (usually empty, sadly).
As all Malaysians know, red envelopes ang pao or hongbao in Mandarin and lai see in Cantonese are small red and gold packets containing money given to children, family members, friends and employees as a symbol of good luck. In Chinese culture, the color red is associated with energy, happiness and good luck.
According to Chinese legend, the tradition began as a way to keep children safe from the demon Sui who would come after sleeping children on New Year’s Eve. The demon would come to touch a sleeping child’s head three times. Out of fear, the child would cry loudly, then he would get a headache, fever, and begin babbling incoherently. When these symptoms disappeared, the child would become a fool.
To protect their children, the parents would keep the lights on and stay up all night on New Year’s Eve to keep away the demon. This is the origin of the tradition of adults staying up all night on New Year’s Eve.
One Chinese New Year, fearing the demon, the Guan family stayed up all night, making their son stay awake with them. To entertain him, the boy was given eight coins to play with, along with some red paper. Eventually, the child fell asleep with the coins wrapped in red paper lying beside his pillow, with his parents in the room to watch over him.
At midnight, a gust of wind came and blew out the candle light, and the demon came. But, as Sui was about to touch the boy’s forehead, another gust of wind came and blew away the red paper, exposing the coins. The silver light from the coins frightened the demon and it fled.
On New Year’s Day, the couple told all of their neighbors what happened. From then on, all parents did the same thing, and their children have been safe from the demon since. Thus the tradition of the red packet was born, which we carry out to this day.
Nowadays, the legend behind the giving out of red packets is not very well known, red packets simply being a tradition to welcome prosperity and luck in the new year. It is also said that red packets are given from those of higher authority (parents, employers) to change the luck of the recipients from bad to good.
Nevertheless, the ang pao is a much loved tradition among Malaysians and is definitely here to stay. Have a great Chinese New Year with lots of ang pao!
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