CHAPEL HILL -- It makes him laugh, even now, remembering the anticipation he felt about receiving the little red envelopes when he was a child.
Zethus Suen, 16, president of the Youth Group of the Triangle Area Chinese American Society (TACAS), always looked forward to receiving the red envelopes from his parents, grandparents and other adults at Chinese New Year.
The red envelopes contain "lucky money." They not only delight children, but also serve as a way of passing the Chinese New Year traditions from generation to generation.
When people came to visit or when his family visited other families, the adults always had the little red envelopes ready for the children. "Red generally means good luck, and the red envelope with money is supposed to signify good luck," Suen said.
The envelopes usually contained a dollar or $5, he said.
Yu-Robinson, a spokeswoman for TACAS, said the red envelopes usually have gold designs on them, and it's not so much the amount of money as the wish that goes with it. "It's just a token, a wish for you to have the best in the coming new year," she said.
The adults also give the children hard candy in a special wrap and fruit, especially tangerines, which are a wish for a fruitful year, Yu-Robinson said.
Today is the Chinese New Year, the first day of the year 4704 and the Year of the Dog. The Chinese New Year is based on a lunar calendar, occurring on the second new moon after the first day of winter.
In China, the New Year is the most important holiday of the year, a time for families to come together for celebrations and reunions. In the United States, Chinese-Americans continue the traditions of New Year's but on a smaller scale. Instead of celebrating for days or even weeks as they do in China, it's more of a one-day event that occurs on New Year's Eve, said Zethus' mother, Libby Suen.
"Fifteen days is not my generation," she said. "Normally, it's just one day."
But it's a big day. "New Years is the biggest event in Chinese culture," said Sam Suen, father to Zethus and Apollo, 19.
Sam Suen is a computer programmer and sometimes teaches at the Chinese School at Chapel Hill.
The New Year is like a combination of Thanksgiving and Christmas because families get together for feasts, festivities and fun. "It's a big family reunion," Suen said. "On New Years Eve night we're going to have a big family feast, and everyone comes home, back to their parents."
Sam Suen, who was born in mainland China, remembers that in China, everyone rushed home from work early on New Year's Eve, and for three days, everything shut down so people could celebrate.
Here in the Triangle, TACAS squeezes all the celebrations into one day. Saturday at the Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, they celebrated from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. with dances, dramas, arts, games and ethnic food.
The Chinese New Year's Eve is different than the Dec. 31 festivities in the United States. First and foremost, it's a family reunion. Secondly, it's the only day that children are allowed to stay up past midnight, Sam Suen said. They get to gamble, too, usually in the form of card games.
"The children will say to their parents, 'Happy New Year. By the way, where's my lucky money?'" he said with a laugh.
The meals include symbolic dishes, such as round rice ball dumplings, which symbolizes reunions, and fish. The word fish in Chinese is a homonym for "surplus" or "great plenty."
Two other Chinese traditions are the Lion Dance and the Dragon Dance. Zethus Suen, who attends Chapel Hill High School, was scheduled to dress as a lion and perform the dance at Penang Restaurant in Chapel Hill on Friday night. "There are two people in the costume, and it looks like a lion with people in it," he said. "It's a really ancient tradition that dates back in Chinese history. It's supposed to bring good luck."
The ideas of good luck, good wishes and prosperity for the coming year are symbolized through dance, food and traditions. And it always helps to get a little lucky money, too.