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Starbucks's green cup controversy, explained

For some, the war on Christmas is already here.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Starbucks is typically a touchstone for consistency, a beacon of predictability we can take comfort in while the chaotic world around us threatens to swallow us whole. The company’s drip coffee will always taste like it was drawn from the last viable vein of a lifetime chain smoker. Its cold brew tastes fantastic year-round, but somehow the first sip on the first day of summer is incomparable. Everyone knows that when you walk into Starbucks, small, medium, and large become Tall, Grande, and Venti.

And now it looks like a new truth is being forged: Every year, people will lose their minds about the coffee colossus’s holiday cups.

On November 1, Starbucks introduced a new green cup featuring a “mosaic of more than a hundred people drawn in one continuous stroke,” which the company says represents community and unity in a time of political divisiveness. But despite the company’s intentions, people have responded with extreme vitriol because they believe their holiday cup has been threatened. It’s not unlike what we saw last year, when people equated the simple design of the company’s holiday cups with a war on Christmas.

Why people are upset with Starbucks’s new green cups

Right around this time — the beginning of November — Starbucks usually rolls out its red cups. But something different happened this year, in that Starbucks began using its green cups and people thought these were the cups.

In the wake of the green cups’ debut, some people have been responding as if someone set their hair on fire. Parker Molloy, a writer at Upworthy, rounded up some tense reactions, ranging from a request for snowflakes to an accusation that Starbucks is guilty of “political brainwashing”:

It all comes back to the proverbial war on Christmas. Some people have argued that any holiday cup designs that don’t contain Christmas imagery are indicative of the company stifling Christians’ beliefs or stifling itself to appease non-Christian customers.

The same accusation of Christian censoring happened in 2015 as well.

But in the past six years, Starbucks, which doesn't identify itself as a Christian company, has never put the words "Merry Christmas" on its holiday cups — instead, it's used generally wintry and vaguely holiday-esque imagery and language, including snowmen and ornaments that say things like "joy" or "hope."

Here are the cups dating back to 2009:

The green cup isn’t this year’s holiday cup

The real kicker of this outrage is that the green cup isn’t even Starbucks’s vaunted holiday cup for 2016 — it’s more of a pre-election cup, if you will. While the green cup appeared in stores on November 1, the date usually reserved for the holiday cup’s annual debut, the company says the green cup will only be available for a limited time. Further, the cup isn’t supposed to be a holiday cup but rather a symbol of community or unity.

“The green cup and the design represent the connections Starbucks has as a community with its partners (employees) and customers. During a divisive time in our country, Starbucks wanted to create a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other,” Howard Schultz, Starbucks’s chair and CEO, said in a press release, which details the mosaic figures and what the cup’s artwork means.

Meanwhile, it appears that a Starbucks employee has posted a picture of the company’s 2016 red holiday cups on Imgur:

The cups appear to be a darker shade of red than last year’s, with a design of holly and berries. Presumably they’ll appear in Starbucks stores soon. But it’s unclear whether these red cups, in all their snow-dusted glory, will assuage the outrage that’s already out there.

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