Guest Author - Caroline Baker
There are many occasions to give gifts to people in Chinese customs. But it is important to know some of the gift giving etiquette, which we will cover here for some of the major life events.
How a family celebrates the birth of a child depends on how traditional the family is. In general, Chinese do not celebrate with showers prior to the birth of the child because it's bad luck. This custom is reflected in many other older cultures where it was quite common to lose a child prior to birth.
After about a month, the baby will come out for its first introduction to the world. At this time, it is customary to try and present the child with tokens of good luck and fortune throughout their lives. This includes various gifts of money and often gold trinkets or bracelets and charms to ward off evil spirits. Some regions of China practice the "hat" ceremony, where the aunt-to-be will knit a special decorative hat for the child to protect the head and keep them warm.
Weddings are a time of joy, to celebrate the union of two families. To share in that joy, it is often customary to give money to help the new couple start their family. Often, Chinese people try to pick "lucky denominations". This includes avoiding things like the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death. It also includes having many zeros in the denomination, zero being a circular figure that continues with no break and thus represents the union of the couple.
Gold and red play major parts here, helping wish luck to the new couple. Depending upon the couple, family members (especially male relatives of the groom) will make poems and cynical lyrics to taunt and laugh the night away, in some ways not that uncommon from the best man's speech.
Gifts should be chosen to represent balance and wishes for the couple, such as a mattress to bring warmth and softness to their nights.
Depending on the family, birthdays can be celebrated in a variety of ways. Most Chinese these days celebrate the birthday as they are on the Western calendar; but some, especially the older generation, still mark their birthdays based on the Chinese calendar. Thus, the actual day changes from year to year. Some, even older traditions, celebrate everyone's birthday on New Years. Thus, making the 15-day celebration something important for everyone.
On birthdays, you want to avoid giving things that speak of the passage of time. So watches or time pieces of any sort are bad for a birthday. In part, because it reminds us of the coming of our death. But also, the Chinese word for time sounds a lot like the words for "seeing death".
Birthdays are always important, but increasingly so on the same animal year as your birth, which occurs every twelve years. On that year, a person will find their lives at one extreme or another of the luck spectrum, thus it is a precarious time and a year where the person needs a lot of luck bestowed upon them.
The biggest birthday, however, is the sixtieth year. That is the year where both the animal and the element symbol are exactly the same as the year you were born. It is not uncommon at this celebration to give symbols of longevity and extended like, like miniature old trees showing the strength built over the passage of time.