Should Christians give and receive mandarin oranges and red packets during Chinese New Year?

Let me begin by explaining the customs for the sake of our brethren who may not be familiar with them. These customs probably originated from China, but have evolved into the form it takes in our land. In this form, every Chinese New Year each family will head out to visit relatives who are higher in patriarchal status. Thus for example, a man may bring his family to visit his parents and his uncles and aunts, or even his older brothers.

During these visits, it is customary that each member of the visiting family produces two mandarin oranges as he or she conveys New Year greetings to the heads of household. Those who receive the oranges would usually give two other oranges back in exchange; and at the same time, they would give red packets (with money inside) to every unmarried member in the visiting party; and the head of household of the visiting family will reciprocate by giving red packets to any member of the family who is not yet married, regardless of how old they are.

Why mandarin oranges? Some believe that they represent gold nuggets. But I think it is probably because the citrus shrub bears fruits around the time of the Chinese New Year, and in ancient days the families would exchange oranges from their orchard to see whose taste better. Why red packet? The more superstitious believe that red is an auspicious colour and when a red packet is given to another it symbolises a wish of ‘good luck’ for the recipient. Why money in the red packets? Well, I suppose it is because we are a practical people (in some other Chinese cultures, the packets would contain rice or sweets).

Now, apart from the pedantic superstition on the colour red, I am not aware of any other religious or superstitious connotations associated with the two practices. For this reason, I do not object strongly to the practice.

However, I do find them rather meaningless, and therefore would not generally practice the custom except in reciprocation and also where I perceive that a failure to observe the custom would be regarded as disrespectful.

This is especially so with very senior relatives, where a failure to visit with oranges may be regarded as being rude. And worse, we may not be able to explain our rationale even if we like to. This will have bearing on our Christian testimony. The same goes for red packets. I would like to do away with it, but you can hardly ever turn down when someone decides to give them to you or to your children, and you would be expected to give to the children of the giver in return. As you can imagine, while it is conceivably harmless, it could promote covetousness in the children and a competitive spirit among parents.

So to answer our question on whether Christians should exchange oranges and red packets, my opinion is that if we can avoid it, we may want to avoid it. But it is not wrong to practise it and I know that many would disagree that they are meaningless. Let each of us be persuaded in our own minds and seek to relate to one another charitably. Ω