Chinese New Year Etiquette

Being a “third culture kid,” I sometimes miss some nuances in Chinese culture. This has been made apparent to me this Chinese New Year (CNY), where I’ve made a couple faux pas. Hey! It’s only my second Chinese New Year in Asia! Plus, Chinese culture is very deep, coming from just under a thousand years of recorded history.

Saving others from similar embarrassment, here are some learnings from my own further studies and comments from relatives.

1. The Year of the Sheep / Goat / Lamb (2015) and what it means

This is the year of the sheep / goat / lamb, which means it’s an especially good year, as the lamb is a traditionally celebrated animal in Chinese culture. People born on a lamb year are thought to be super chilled out and gentle. The reason for the discrepancy in animals (you’ll hear sheep, goat and lamb) is because the year is denoted with one character (羊, however several modifiers can be used to suggest different animals. I usually go with lamb (at hotpot).

Year of the goat man...

Year of the lamb man…

To be precise, it’s actually the year of the wood lamb. There are five elements (fire, earth, metal, water, wood). The addition of the element means that people born this year are further likely to be confident, systematic and have high morals.

There are entire life plans crafted into each astrological sign that go into some pretty painstaking detail, including how to get healthy, who to make friends with, when best to have sex, when your luck is the best, how to make tons of money, how to drink a martini, etc. If you’re into that stuff you can check it out here.

2. Red Envelope Etiquette


This ended up being more complicated than I originally thought. First, make sure you purchase the correct red pocket; do not purchase the ones that have “double happiness” written on them (囍) which are used for marriage (almost handed one out to the building security guard… FML). Red pockets are used for many special occasions, so you’ll find many designs varying in style. A lot of companies in Hong Kong have their own special red envelopes. McDonalds even made ones that looks like cheeseburgers!

– The amount should be an even number, normally bills, not coins
– It’s best to stick with one bill when possible, so if you’re giving out $100 HKD, people would rather get the $100 bill than five 20s.
– If possible, the aforementioned bills should be crisp. There are actually line ups outside banks close to the New Year with people looking for crisp bank notes.
– “Who do I need to hand out a red packet to?” People that provide you a regular service (maintenance, security, employees, au pair) and people you are senior to  (employees, nieces / nephews, kids). You don’t usually need to give a red envelope to peers and start to give out red pockets to relatives only once you get married.
– If you’re married and giving out red envelopes, you need to do it in pairs, ie. one envelope won’t cut it for two people. You and your better half will each provide a separate envelope with money to relatives.
– Number superstitions also apply to red envelopes. DO NOT give out denominations that have the number four in them (40, 400, 140, etc.), as four (四,si) sounds a lot like “die” in Chinese (死 , si).

2. Chinese New Year Celebrations are TWO WEEKS LONG

A big family dinner usually happens on the eve of the New Year. Afterwards, each day has a very specific and very complicated ritual, but for brevity’s sake, here a high level look at the ones that matter. Of course, much of this is superstition now – the main point to remember is it’s about the family at this time of the year.

Day 1: No meat until midnight. This day is also very important being the first day of CNY, so go visit some of your most respected or important family members.

Day 2: A day for visiting your parents, and burning stuff in prayer. Family dinner also works.

Day 3 & 4: If someone in the family has died in the last three years, you are not to visit anyone. In fact, day three and four are pretty much off limits for visitation, as this is supposed to be the day all your dead relatives, ghosts and spirits come out to play. Shops which were closed for holidays will start to open again on Day 3, however very superstitious owners will wait until day 5 for all the spirits to go away. You should go visit any deceased relatives at this time.

Day 5: God of wealth appears at your house. It’s advised to stay home all day if possible to collect your riches.

Day 6: Visiting day. Go visit friends, temples, relatives etc.

Day 7 – 13: These are more auspicious days that strict holidays and are usually for visiting more family, eating cleaner and being thankful for the nature of the holidays. By now, most people are getting revved up for the Lantern Festival on the day of the first full moon.

Day 14 – 15: The Lantern Festival, signifying the end of the New Year and beginning of the first full moon and Spring Festival. Another big family dinner is held on the 15th day, with oranges, lanterns and little rice dumplings aplenty.

The new year serves to celebrate and cultivate positive relationships between people, families, nature and a higher power, bringing another cycle of life and happiness full circle.

I hope this sheds some light on Chinese New Year customs for any other Chinese holiday “noobs.”


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