That little red envelope with gold Chinese characters is known by different names in different places: ang pao, ang pow, ang pae, tae ea, lai see, ang-pau, or hongboao.
Let me simply call it ang pao.
I must have lived a pretty cloistered existence before I got married, because I never knew of ang pao till my wedding—to a true-blue Filipino, in mind and in deed, of pure Chinese parentage. I was given a bulging one by my new in-laws. And to my surprise, it contained cash. All along I thought envelopes came with letters.
Then when son #1 was born, my in-laws handed me another one of these red carriers of treasure, “For our grandson.”
Ang pao had since become a part of my children’s birthdays, Christmases, holidays, and all occasions we celebrated as a family. Not only did I associate it with cash, I also linked it with my sons’ unbridled joy when receiving one from Angkong and Amah.
My in-laws are gone now, but I have made ang pao a part of my gift-giving. When I run out of gift ideas, I give cash in an ang pao. Okay, I also want it known I am partly Chinese.
“You don’t know its history,” son #3 rebuked me one day. “You could be carrying on a pagan ritual. Do you even know what those golden characters say?”
Well, the people I give ang pao to (Filipinos) don’t know what they mean either. Also, what harm could little red envelopes do? So I went on my merry way.
But last Christmas I was short on ang pao while wrapping my Christmas gifts. So I rushed to the mall. Alas, I went from store to store and found none. “Out of stock po,” said the sales people.
I suddenly realized how popular ang pao is! That got me curious about its whys and wherefores, and so here's one legend that my research yielded . . .
During the Sung Dynasty in China, a village called Chang-Chieu was terrorized by a huge demon. No warrior could defeat it. However, a young orphan with a magical sword inherited from his ancestors dared fight the demon and killed it. The village elders presented the brave young man with a red envelope filled with money for his courage. Since then, ang pao has become a symbol of Chinese celebration.
Like any beautifully wrapped gift, ang pao brings grace. And that is a beautiful thing.