Yesterday afternoon, in a bid to combat the rapidly encroaching winter chill, I forked out a whopping £3.20 for my first gingerbread latté of the holiday season. Revelling in its frothy deliciousness, I paid very little attention to the receptacle that held my festive pick-me-up, but shockingly, these red paper cups have become the source of a controversy that has captured media attention over the last couple of weeks.
It all began with a viral video created by American evangelist and self-professed “social media personality” Joshua Feuerstein. The video, entitled “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus”, was posted on 5th November and has since amassed over 16 million views on Facebook alone. Feuerstein’s claim is that the cups are “symbolic of a larger war against Christianity” and that in removing Christmas from their cups, Starbucks are bowing to the pressure of “political correctness” and contributing to a wider cultural suppression of religion.
(Photo Credit: still from YouTube video by ctown legend)
In reality however, his assertions are founded on pretty unstable grounds. For starters, if my trip to Starbucks was anything to go by, the company certainly does appear to be embracing the festive spirit. The atmosphere was decidedly Christmas-y, and their latest seasonal treats include “Christmas Almond” muffins alongside mince pies, whose shape is traditionally symbolic of the manger and its swaddling clothes. More importantly however, whilst the cups’ design has certainly been simplified this year, it has never displayed overt signs of Christmas or of Christian symbolism. As seen below, the cups always depict fairly neutral wintery scenes with vague abstract words like “hope” and “wish”. There’s never been a nativity-themed Starbucks cup, nor has the word “Christmas” actually ever been included.
(Photo Credit: Time Magazine)
Starbucks has never claimed to be company founded on Christian belief, and so a lack of religious connotation on their cups should never have been an issue. Furthermore, if we were relying on a disposable coffee cup to educate us on the true meaning of Christmas, then I would suggest that Starbucks is not the one to blame. Even so, the original video has been shared over 500,000 times on Facebook alone, spreading like wildfire through social media and proliferated even further by online media outlets. Considering the infinitely more serious issues going on in the world right now, it seems ridiculous that the designs on our disposable coffee holders are creating “news”. However, the prevalence of this controversy is perhaps more significant as a direct result of the ways in which social media shapes perceptions and creates scandal from something as insignificant as a paper cup.
From first glance at the headlines on my Facebook timeline, I initially assumed that the “Christian Outrage at New Starbucks Holiday Cup Design” was aimed at the appropriation of religious tradition and symbolism by corporations for commercial gain. This kind of misinterpretation is not uncommon on a platform where news is shared in short, snappy and easily digestible sound bites, which can often flatten and over-simplify complex issues. From a quick look at my Facebook or Twitter feeds, it would be easy to assume that all Christians hate Starbucks as a result of Feuerstein’s claims, but this is simply not the case. My housemate Mat, real-life Christian and avid coffee fan, comments,
“The whole thing really perplexes me, and I don’t know anyone who’s been annoyed by it. I’ve been told by Buzzfeed that I’m really angry about it, which is strange because I literally couldn’t care less…”
The protest began with the minority and that’s where it should have remained. Instead, social media has intervened, transforming the issue into a proliferation of the simple and attractive myth that all Christians are irrational, pedantic and absurd.
(Photo Credit: catholic.com via Google)
Three days after Feuerstein’s video was posted, Starbucks explained that this year’s plainer cup design is a nod to a the role of the coffee shop as a haven of simplicity and calm in the midst of the hectic holiday season. Jeffrey Fields, vice president of design and content, has commented, “Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays. We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It’s a more open way to usher in the holiday.”
This explanation seems pretty apt. I don’t know about you all, but this Christmas, I’m going to follow Starbucks’ lead in keeping controversy away from my coffee and enjoying my gingerbread lattés in peace.