Nov 7, 2019

The Red Cups are Coming! The Red Cups are Coming!

Starbucks announced today that it was releasing five new holiday-themed cups. For many
of us, this triggers an automatic shiver-down-the-spine recoil as we recall the fake "War on Christmas" of a few years ago that continues to rear its ugly my-way-of-faith-is-the-only-way head.

You may remember the vaunted Red Cup Controversy. I wrote about this in Holy Grounds, my book on coffee and faith, in the Starbucks chapter titled The Green Elephant in the Room. Here's what I wrote:

The Red Cup Controversy

Not just any coffee company can so powerfully impact American society that it finds itself in the midst of the political culture wars. But that’s exactly what happened when the famed Red Cup controversy reared its caffeinated head. In 2015, Starbucks changed its annual holiday-themed cup to a plain, festive bright red with the circular green mermaid logo. Red and green—Santa colors. A cute, simple design meant to put everyone in the holiday spirit as they ordered their calorie-laden peppermint latte, right? Not so fast, Christmas hater!

After removing the traditional Christmas symbols like snowmen, trees, ornaments, and snow flakes of past years’ cup designs, suddenly Starbucks was Exhibit A in the War on Christmas. 

One rather unhinged internet evangelist put together a YouTube video in which he commented, “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus . . . SO I PRANKED THEM . . . and they HATE IT!!!!” 

He “pranked” them by ordering a cup of coffee and telling the barista his name was Merry Christmas. So the Starbucks employee dutifully wrote “Merry Christmas” on his cup.

In other words, his prophetic protest meant supporting the company he professed to abhor by buying their product and giving them publicity. And, not for nothing, but it’s not as if Starbucks suddenly removed Christian iconography from their holiday cups. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, et al. weren’t being banished. Generic, non-scriptural snowmen were.

This whole absurd episode shed more light upon the state of our divided country—and internet-fueled outrage—than it did on an alleged anti-Christian movement. It does show just how iconic Starbucks has become, however. A coffee shop becoming a catalyst for talk-radio folderol? That’s impressive.

Believe it or not, this contrived controversy wasn’t even the first time a dispute arose over Starbucks Christmas coffee. In 1997, Starbucks attorneys contacted the abbot of a tiny Russian Orthodox monastery (tiny as in five monks in residence) on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. The issue at hand revolved around a coffee-roasting monk at All-Merciful Savior Monastery who raised money for his order by selling a coffee called Christmas Blend. Starbucks had recently trademarked the term and insisted the monk cease and desist his operation. 

Once the David and Goliath story hit the national news, Starbucks backed off, rightly seeing a publicity nightmare in the offing. You can still purchase the holiday Christmas Blend from the monastery from October through December.

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