By Marc Jampole
Another skirmish on the culture wars broke out this week as right-wing Christians have flooded the social and mainstream media complaining that the specialty coffee cup into which the part-time, low-paid servers working for multinational Starbucks pour its overpriced brew in November and December does not sufficiently represent Christmas. This year’s cup is plain red with the Starbucks’s logo. In past years, Starbucks has embellished its holiday cup with icons of contemporary secular Christmas celebration such as ornaments, carolers and snowflakes.
Evangelicals say the Starbucks’s action is part of a continuing “War on Christmas.” For about 10 years now, religious right-wingers and right-wing media such as Fox News have complained whenever big retailers have used “holiday” in their ads and marketing instead of saying “Christmas.” The motivation of the retailers seems clear: to entice those who don’t celebrate Christmas to participate in the potlatch of conspicuous consumption which defines late December in the United States and most other countries whose population is Christian or has a Christian background. Jews fell into line decades ago, turning a minor holiday—Hanukkah—into an occasion for gift-giving, which of course means gift-buying. But what about Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year? And what do retailers do about Muslims, Buddhists, Hindi, Jains and the myriad of other religions practiced by Americans? An ecumenical “holiday” season certainly has a better chance of attracting sales from all these non-Christian groups than a “Christmas” season.
But that’s not how the evangelicals see it. To them, everything that does not directly manifest Christianity in the marketplace in November and December is a direct attack on Christianity. If they cared so much about Christianity, however, their concern would not be that the marketplace is too secular, but rather that the marketplace has taken over Christmas and slowly drained it of any religious meaning.
The big complaint should be that Starbucks trots out its special holiday cups as early as the first week of November, the same time that most retailers install their holiday decorations, which mostly draw from Christmas traditions. We have two solid months in which we are bombarded almost 24/7 with attempts to sell us goods and services to celebrate the holidays. Whether “holiday” means Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Chinese New Year or whatever, the marketplace and the mass media exhort us to celebrate by buying stuff. Not by following Christian principles. Not by contemplating what some will call holy mysteries and others will call myths. Not by helping others. No, most of the holiday information overload focuses on conspicuous consumption. As is the American way, we relate to others and the real world on Christmas solely as purchasers.
If they really cared about Christianity, right-wingers would protest the commercialization of Christmas. They would advocate that cashiers and store greeters say “Happy Holidays” or give the normal rest-of-the-year greeting, because reducing their religious holiday to conspicuous consumption dishonors the day’s holiness. They would picket stores with Christmas displays, since those displays are merely exhortations to buy, and not reflections of devotion to their god.
Muddying the Starbucks cup controversy is the ignorance of many of the evangelicals, who don’t realize that certain Christmas practices have nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with social customs, many of which predate Christianity, such as bringing greenery inside the home in winter. For example, one prominent evangelical dunce named Joshua Feuerstein wrote on Facebook, “Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups?” Of course, he was wrong. There never was a symbol of Christ on the cups, just symbols of secular Christmas.
Those who believe in the War on Christmas do not understand how ubiquitous and potent the symbols of Christianity are in society during the last two months of the year. The Starbucks cup is exhibit A. While plain, the color combination is red and green, traditional Christmas colors. As far as I know, there are no white and blue cups, which would suggest Hanukkah. No cups add black to the color palette, which would symbolize Kwanzaa. None of the cups are red and gold, colors associated with the Chinese New Year.
No, it’s only red and green, the colors of Christmas. Starbucks may proclaim its dedication to diversity, but its special holiday cup references only one holiday. Even those commercials that talk about the “season” exclusively focus on Christmas in the iconography they present—trees, stockings, Christmas-style decorations. I’ve yet to see a Menorah or dreidel in a Wal-Mart or Target TV commercial. One sometimes sees Hanukkah themes in store decorations—a little Jewish star in a sea of Santas, reindeer, candy canes, ornaments, trees, angels and carolers. That’s why many Jews and other non-Christians feel that the real war this time of year is against every other religion. I understand that retailers focus on Christmas because most Americans are either Christian or of a Christian background. But that knowledge does little to relieve the oppression and alienation that many non-Christians feel as the holiday is shoved down their throats for two solid months.
After making a vague suggestion that people should boycott Starbucks because it only used color to symbolize Christmas and Christianity on this year’s special cup, commercial real estate failure and former reality show host Donald Trump—who, BTW, is running for the Republican nomination for president—said “If I become president, we're all going to be saying, ‘Merry Christmas’ again. That I can tell you.” Now that’s a declaration of real war, not against Christmas or Christians, but against basic American values. That a major party candidate should make such a statement should send a chill down all of our spines.