by Ethan Starr
The American holiday season maintains a certain number of constant features throughout our nation’s annual staging of its dueling secular and religious interpretations of winter holidays. Each of these respective celebratory methods would be rendered unrecognizable without their trademarks, including recognizable inclusions of daily life in the winter season, from nativity scenes to inflatable reindeer, attending a parish’s midnight mass to visiting the local mall Santa.
The Christmas season has today become so fractured between its secular and religious elements that people are more likely to find instances of a blending of the two conflicting interpretations of Christmas disconcerting than the concept of an obese man breaking and entering every home in the nation through their chimney. Among these everyday examples of intersectionality between the two Christmases, one familiar fixture of the American holiday season has enjoyed a disproportionate amount of attention in the past few years; this article will consider the religiosity of various Starbucks holiday cups.
Beginning in 1997, Starbucks coffee has introduced holiday-themed cups on an annual basis to its customers over 20 years ago in 1997, debuting the concept with a swirling pattern of holly leaves and coffee beans available in four colors. Since then, the company has adopted an array of styles in its revisiting its responsibility of defining a season of several holidays within the outer surface of a cup. Some designs have taken a minimalistic approach, such as 2001’s green-trimmed, red-based cup, meant to resemble a present with its streamlined green stripes, and 2014’s “Let there be bright” cup, complete with heavy brushstrokes and a radial design that bears resemblance to a star. In 2015, many critiqued Starbucks’ penchant for minimalism for oversimplifying their holiday design, as the cup consisted of only a slight gradient between a warmer and darker red, alongside the business’ green logo.
The 2015 design set off a sense of outrage among a number of customers who, inspired by either by the rancorous political year or a distaste for the organization of Starbucks itself, vowed to boycott the company, alleging a lack of respect to Christian customers. Despite garnering support from the future President of the US, the boycott failed to have a demonstrable effect nationwide. A corollary ‘movement’ begun by online vloggers encouraged customers to introduce themselves at the counter as “Merry Christmas” so that baristas would have to acknowledge the Christian holiday on the side of their red cups. Starbucks responded to fears of alienating religious customers by producing a “customer-created” holiday cup for each of the next two years, with white outlines on red leaving explicit mentions of the Christmas holiday, as well as several other countries’ holiday celebrations. Although presented as equally ‘evenhanded’ as their previous designs, the two years following the controversy maintained much more overt reference than almost any other previous design from the company, as many of the previous cups had featured, at most, snowflakes or a view of snowy scenery. As the company released four separate cup designs for 2018, however, they have generally returned to the minimalistic style of limited outside references.
Why has Starbucks never decided to print a nativity scene, or a depiction of Jesus on their holiday cups? Surely many of those same protesters of 2015 would feel heartened by the inclusion of explicitly Christian subject matter in a future cup design. However, they are very likely to find themselves disappointed; as a business, Starbucks remains likely to choose whatever cup might boost sales the most. Perhaps more important for Christians upset with the religiosity of their paper cups might be consideration of the beneficially of religious subject matter being represented at all on commercial, disposable products. As comforting as a Pumpkin Spice Latte on a wintry day might sound to some, Jesus has little relevance in the daily ritual of overpriced caffeine products. Instead of creating the daily event of throwing away one’s nativity-adorned paper products (an unlikely scenario to be produced in the first place, as argued earlier), perhaps a recommendation may be of use: try a reusable cup.