Passed from the wrinkly fingers of elders to the smooth youthful palms of children, lucky money bribes generational connection and fortune. Laid under the child’s pillow or directly to the eager hands, packets are given after the New Year Eve dinner.
According to legend, lucky money defends young children from the little demon called “祟”, or Sneaky. The demon comes out on the night of New Years to touch the heads of sleeping children; but after this seemingly innocent caress, the child would often develop a headache and fever, eventually turning into a fool. A husband and wife of very old age were concerned that Sneaky would defect their beloved child, so they placed eight copper coins under the child’s pillow. In the middle of the night, a gust of wind blew open the door and blew out the lights, adumbrating the beast’s arrival. As “祟” reached out to the child’s head, flashes burst out and scared “祟” into escaping. Eight copper coins in red paper, which evolved into “Lucky Money”, have protected young Chinese children from Sneaky until now.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, one hundred ancient coins strung along a red ribbon and formed a trail of fortune. The “longevity money” would elongate life span for up to 100 years. But just like a long life, the craft proved to be strenuous, as red paper packages began to house the one hundred coins. After coins evolved to banknotes, elders requested new dollar bills from the bank in consecutive numbers, signifying that the lucky money will last continuously for their offspring. Though grandparents aimed to encourage intense study and exceptional grades, expectation and reality often diverge: the Qing Dynasty poem “Lucky Money 压岁钱” by Wu Manyun 吴曼云 depicted what Chinese children really had in mind. “Hundred coins strung by a red ribbon, they were hid under each’s own pillow; discussing the firecrackers and their prices, causing the children stay up whole night”.
“Hundred coins strung by a red ribbon, they were hid under each’s own pillow; discussing the firecrackers and their prices, causing the children stay up whole night”. – Wu Manyun 吴曼云
Every Chinese New Year Dinner, my grandma from my mother’s side, and the only Taiwanese relative living in the US, joins us for the extravagant meal. This year, as I reached down to embrace my Hao Puo’s now fragile figure, her slender arm reached into her purse and reveled a packet of bright red. This youthful exhilaration, a sensation that has trademarked and personified each American Lunar New Year celebration, is one that I learn to value more and more every year. While there maybe no next Chinese New Year, or next elder to hand me a red packet, this custom – quintessential to the Chinese emphasis on elders – will carry close to my heart.