Starbucks Got Served a Tempest in a Go Cup

An Arizona pastor is frothing over the coffee chain’s newly designed holiday cup with a nasty social-media campaign. Which this Christmas-loving Christian writer finds deeply offensive.

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Nobody likes an ideological assault before they’ve had their morning coffee, and surely, nobody likes one while they’re having their coffee, either.

It’s not even two weeks after Halloween, not even halfway through pumpkin spice season, and already, the War on Christmas carping has begun. This time, the outrage is over the change in the Starbucks coffee chain’s design for their annual holiday cup. The cup, in previous years, featured no explicitly religious words or images, but did include various wintry symbols like snowflakes, ice skates, candy canes, and the like. This year’s cup is a gradient red with the classic green Starbucks logo, which the company obliquely referred to as a more inclusive, democratic style.

“This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories,” said Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks’s Vice-President of Design & Content. “We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it.” The chain will continue selling its traditional Christmas Blend coffee, a Starbucks cup Christmas tree ornament, gift cards that say “Merry Christmas,” and other explicitly Christmas-themed products.

On November 5, Breitbart columnist Raheem Kassam started the Charge of the Red Cup brigade. The article walked a rather fine line between genuine outrage and Colbert Report-style sarcasm, so it was hard to tease out whether or not he was ranting, or punking. With the War on Christmas being a tried-and-true hot button issue for conservative Christians, I predicted expeditious dissemination of his screed, but I had no idea the concept would explode with such viral alacrity. Soon, a #MerryChristmasStarbucks hashtag was deployed by (allegedly) offended Christians who vowed to boycott the chain, after Arizona pastor Joshua Feuerstein racked up 14 million-plus views with an anti-Starbucks rant on Facebook titled “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus,” a diatribe so elliptical and absurd I thought for sure it was one big Jesus troll. I didn’t know what to believe, and perhaps I shouldn’t care, but as a cradle Presbyterian recently reacquainted with the pleasures of faith, and someone who all but lives on social media—an addiction that is fueled by caffeinated beverages—I do have a faithy, jittery, screen-obsessed dog in this particular fight.         

I am anything but Christmas-neutral. Christmas is a sentimental, emotional time for me, and I love every ritual and symbol, from chocolates plucked out of the advent calendar to the children’s choirs singing “Adeste Fidelis” right down to my parents’ old battered and frayed straw Yul goat. The passing of the peace at midnight Christmas Eve service chokes me up so that “Peace Be With You” comes out as “Squee Be Boo Boo.” When everyone in the packed pews bursts into “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” right as the clock strikes 12? Total waterworks. If A Charlie Brown Christmas—one of the only Christmas specials exalting the spiritual aspect of the holiday—gets yanked from network television, I might be posting the next viral YouTube harangue. Do I want to, as the billboards and bumper stickers say, Keep Christ in Christmas? Believe it. So I understand sensitivity to the perceived dilution of the holiday’s significance. Truly. But this? Outrage over a cardboard cup that is red and green and therefore plenty Christmassy as it is? You guys, I thought, I think we can let this one go.




Turns out that Christian Twitter didn’t exactly rush to get behind #MerryChristmasStarbucks. In fact, CupGate has already become something of a joke, with Christian humor accounts like @UnvirtuousAbbey coming up with its own cup design—the classic round green Starbucks medallion with, in the place of the iconic siren logo, an image of Christ rolling his eyes and holding up his hands. Instead of the company name wrapping the circle’s border, it says “Lighten up, people.” Even old-school conservative media outlets are getting in on the eye-roll, with no less august publication than The National Review running the headline “Getting Mad About Starbucks’s Holiday Cups Is Insane.”         

As the think-pieces, hot takes, and armchair analysis have begun pouring in, the story has become not that massive numbers of Christians are offended by the cups, but rather, that the Christian Persecution Complex has become so ingrained in the secular media imagination, the outrage seems realeven though it isn’t. Maybe we can blame the long-tail effect of bakers refusing to create wedding cakes for same-sex couples, or pizzerias saying they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding reception, but there is now established precedent for thinking Christians have hair-trigger sensitivities that are manifested in the marketplace. For a lightweight ‘thumper such as myself, this is a weird cultural moment—I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m disparaging other believers (Judge not lest ye be judged and all that), but with various trumped-up charges of Christian persecution and cultural erasure via social media, I think we’ve reached peak silliness. We have to be true to our beliefs, wide as our individual interpretation might be, but perhaps an azimuth check of worthiness is in order, like a Christian equivalent the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Maybe before we take to Twitter with a new hashtag or upload a video diatribe, we could ask ourselves: Does this sound like a joke on South Park? (What to call it: The Cartman Test? The Kenny Metric? Have at it, folks).           

The miracle of Christ’s birth occurred in a manger, not a strip mall. The three wise men began their desert trudge bearing gifts to greet him with little to go on but their own faith. It wasn’t reflected back to them as they walked all that way, they had nothing to guide them but the glow from the Star of Bethlehem overhead. We must ask ourselves: Which star do we follow, Christ or consumer culture? Maybe the onus for the CupGate folly lies just not with a Media Hysteria Complex forever on the lookout for the next click-worthy story of Christian wackadoos doing weird stuff in a store, but also with Christians offering baseline fodder for the stereotype. We can insist that our faith be shone back at us everywhere we go, or we can assume, per the Bible’s teachings, that God is with us, no matter what or where, in church or during coffee to-go.

No one likes to be God-splained, to have their interpretation of belief called out as unworthy or frivolous, but there is so much genuine religious persecution and oppression in this world. Is it a good use of our energy to wage a campaign over pizza, cake, or a disposable cup that’s ombre red rather than decorated with candy canes and faux flurries? I suggest, in the spirit of loving Christian fellowship and conscientious American citizenry, that we choose our battles more carefully and stop acting like special snowflakes. 

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