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How Starbucks’s annual holiday cup became a battleground for the heart and soul of America

When a cup is more than just a cup.

The 2018 roster of holiday Starbucks disposable coffee cups.
You mad?

It’s November, which means Starbucks has officially unveiled this year’s “holiday cups” — a lineup of four festive (but not too festive!) disposable options and one reusable cup, which is plain red.

Here they are.

The 2018 lineup of Starbucks holiday cups
The 2018 lineup of Starbucks holiday cups, minus the reusable red one.

Will people be mad? Let’s discuss.

As the press release for the occasion explains, the four cup designs are meant to capture the two-decade history of the holiday Starbucks cup, first introduced in 1997. In the spirit of nostalgia, the company “snipped pieces from Starbucks holidays past” for this year’s cups, adding “doses of vintage colors and patterns ... and reinterpreted them with graphic flair, and a dash [of] glitter and shine.”

The argyle green star cup — “Stargyle” — alludes to an illustration of “a couple reaching up to place a star atop a holiday tree from Christmas Blend 1999.” The “Stripes” cup is intended to tastefully evoke the extremely controversial (“iconic”) red cup, while also referencing the sealed seam that runs along the back of Starbucks coffee bags.

The “Flora” version features holly-esque “ripe coffee cherries,” also featured on the holiday cups of 2013 and 2017, and the red-and-white “Espresso Houndstooth” has something to do with how the brand’s Christmas Blend Espresso Roast coffee is dark and rich and so is the pattern of houndstooth, which is likewise seasonal, because it looks like flames. (I’m paraphrasing here.)

They’re fine cups! The cup critics at Refinery29, in fact, deemed them “the best we’ve seen in years.” They are extremely tasteful, in a very safe sort of way: pleasantly abstract; very Christmassy, but without much of the more heavy-handed iconography of Christmas — they’re ripe coffee cherries, okay? — and evocative of simpler times, like 1997.

The real notable thing here is not these particular cups themselves; it is that the holiday Starbucks cup has become so culturally loaded that this is a story at all. And that speaks to a bizarre fact of modern life: Starbucks is no longer just a coffee chain. It’s become — improbably, and at least partially by accident — a barometer of our national values.

Since at least 2015, the holiday Starbucks cup has become a battleground in a one-sided fight over American values

For the first 18 years, the holiday cups featured what the brand called “symbols of the season,” including but not limited to: holly, snowflakes, stockings/ice skates, reindeer, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas ornaments, and doves. With the exception of the first two years, all the cup were shades of red.

But in 2015, the brand debuted a two-tone ombré cup — the top part was “poppy red,” fading into a more soulful “cranberry” — without any seasonal symbols at all. “In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cup designs,” said Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks’s VP of design and content, in that year’s cup statement. “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”

We can call this an ideological decision, or just a business one: Starbucks knows who its audience is, and it knows that audience is increasingly diverse.

The Starbucks holiday cup from 2015.
The Red Cup, Starbucks, 2015 (ink, paper).
Getty Images

In response to this minimalist cup, conservative Christian internet evangelist Joshua Feuerstein launched a counter-war on Starbucks, striking back at what he perceived to be their cup-based “war on Christmas.”

In a video titled “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus ... SO I PRANKED THEM ... and they HATE IT!!!!,” he outlined his complaint. “Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red. In fact, do you realize that Starbucks isn’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to customers?” (The prank was that he told a barista his name was “Merry Christmas” so that they’d have to write it on the cup.)

It’s worth noting here that while 2015 cup was far more minimal than previous incarnations, no Starbucks cup has ever featured Jesus. Also, the cup was ombré.

As of a New York Times dispatch from the cup front in 2017, the video had been viewed more than 17 million times.

Other conservatives soon amplified Feuerstein’s sentiments. Donald Trump, then a long-shot presidential candidate, used the cups as an example of the so-called “war on Christmas,” a battle that has supposedly been raging since the Puritans banned celebrations of the holiday in the 17th century, but really took off in 2005 when Fox News promoted a book alleging what the New York Times describes as “liberal antagonism toward the holiday.”

Mainly, this takes the form of advocating for a more inclusive society that acknowledges both the separation of church and state and the reality that non-Christian Americans exist. To some conservatives, though, the phrase has become shorthand for deep anxieties about a changing country.

In other words: The cup was an issue Trump hoped would activate his base. “I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks?” he suggested at a November 2015 rally in Illinois. “I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. That’s the end of that lease, but who cares?” Indeed. Who does care about this cup?

As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos wrote, the cup became a source of outrage in large part because performative outrage does well on the internet. “On social media, yelling about what we don’t like defines us as much as the things we do like,” he said, pointing out that the red cup controversy had the unfortunate side effect of flattening all Christians — a large and varied group, most of whom were not incensed about the comparative religiosity of Starbucks cups — into a monolith with Feuerstein.

Starbucks quickly released a statement explaining the cup was about simplicity, not purging the existence of Christmas from the record. “Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays,” Fields said in a statement, and while he did not mention Feuerstein’s concerns specifically, he did take the opportunity to affirm that “creating a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity is one of the core values of Starbucks.”

(Despite the howls of outrage, sales that year were just fine, suggesting either that the anger was mostly for show — or that the angry weren’t buying Starbucks in the first place.)

The next year, the company’s holiday offering comprised 13 red-and-white cups designed by customers: 13 women from six countries. “We hope that this year’s red holiday cup designs express the shared spirit of the holidays as told by our customers,” Starbucks’s global chief marketing officer announced in that year’s statement.

And who could be mad? It was just a few extremely artistic women from around the world, sharing their personal vision of holiday cheer. (Feuerstein, as it happens, was also much happier with these cups, taking them as evidence that Christmas and the country had been “saved.”)

A Starbucks holiday design from 2016
A Starbucks holiday design from 2016.

People just keep getting mad about holiday Starbucks cups!

But the calm was not to last: In 2017, the Starbucks cup once again became an object of controversy, even though it was unequivocally Christmas-forward, featuring a Christmas tree and a stack of (Christmas) presents and (Christmas) ornaments. It was supposed to be an interactive cup — the promo video for the cup encouraged customers to draw on it, like an inconveniently shaped adult coloring book.

Here was the issue: The cup also featured two arms holding hands, and it wasn’t clear, from the image, what gender of bodies the hands belonged to. It seemed possible that the hands were, in the delighted words of BuzzFeed, “definitely gay, right?”

Starbucks holiday cup from 2017
Controversial Starbucks holiday cup, 2017

Once BuzzFeed brought the question, already circulating on social media, to public attention, it didn’t take long for some Starbucks critics to pick up the mantle they’d temporarily abandoned, suggesting that the cups were promoting a “gay agenda.”

The backlash this time was far more muted — except for a few people on social media, it’s not clear how many people were genuinely upset about it. (Even the conservative website the Blaze noted that there were more people mocking the outrage than actual outrage.) But it was a news event anyway, mostly because it fit a well-established narrative that placed Starbucks once again at the center of the culture wars.

It’s not a coincidence that this played out at Starbucks

The Starbucks brand has become synonymous with a certain kind of liberal who lives in a city and drives a Volvo and has $5 to spend on lattes. At the breakfast-centric website Extra Crispy, Hanson O’Haver breaks down the mechanics of the link between liberals and Starbucks. “Of course, there is cafe culture’s long association with that most liberal of places, Europe,” he observed, noting that while the drinks aren’t necessarily all that continental, the menu “offers plenty of funny-sounding foreign words.”

He also pointed to the Seattle-based chain’s coastal roots: “To some conservatives, Starbucks is a force of liberal imperialism, invading their towns, misspelling their names, and suggesting they talk about diversity.”

And in some ways, that is not entirely divorced from reality, even if Starbucks’s attempts to build coffee-centered dialogue about race have not been ... entirely successful. Former CEO Howard Schultz has not been shy about his own politics. Writing about the cup controversies in 2016, the Washington Post’s Maura Judkis broke down Schultz’s more outspoken political moments:

In 2013, he requested that customers not bring guns to his stores, even in states where “open carry” is permitted. He launched “Race Together,” a widely mocked attempt to start a conversation about race in stores. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. And just before the election, Starbucks released a green cup with an illustration of more than 100 people drawn with one continuous line — “a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other,” Schultz said in a news release. People thought it was the holiday cup, and a mass freakout ensued. Schultz, by the way, was raised Jewish.

In response to Trump’s travel ban in 2017, Schultz announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees over five years across the 75 countries where the company does business. After a Philadelphia Starbucks employee called the police on two black men for doing nothing, Schultz said he was “ashamed” and “embarrassed” by the incident, and the company introduced an afternoon-long racial bias training program. (Whether such programs have any effect is a separate issue.)

As Judkis points out, people could be mad at a lot of other companies with left-leaning CEOs, but Starbucks draws special ire — in part because we have a lot of practice getting mad at Starbucks. “The stage has almost been set, for not only consumers, but also media to be sensitive to what Starbucks has done, perhaps more than other brands,” Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told the Post. And as the company has grown beyond the coasts, it’s had to deal with an increasingly politically diverse customer base.

So if people are going to be mad about a holiday-themed paper coffee cup, it makes sense that it would be Starbucks’s holiday-themed paper cup.

Why do we care what Starbucks does with its holiday paper coffee cups to begin with?

As Miranda Popkey pointed out at Extra Crispy, Feuerstein didn’t call for a boycott of Starbucks; he called for a “movement.” That’s telling. “These protests treat the coffee chain as neither a product nor a company, but as a kind of public forum,” she wrote.

And they aren’t wrong, exactly. Starbucks has worked very hard to brand itself as a “third place.” In Starbucks’s ideal vision of the world, there are three places in your life: home, work, and Starbucks. Of those, only Starbucks is public space. “In the 19th century, townsfolk gathered around the cracker barrel,” Popkey wrote. “In the 20th, office workers flocked to the water cooler; in the 21st, we check our phones in line at Starbucks.”

The size and ubiquity of Starbucks — as of 2017, there were 13,930 Starbucks locations in the US — makes it seem, in some way, representative of our collective societal values. So when our corporatized moral barometer makes any kind of change, it seems meaningful, not just about who Starbucks is but about who we are as Americans. This only speaks to Starbucks’s incredible success: It’s more than a public forum; it’s the site of our national identity.

The trouble is that we can’t decide what that identity is. As the New York Times pointed out, it’s likely not a coincidence that the initial red cup brouhaha bubbled up during the 2016 presidential campaign, as “political and social tensions heightened in many areas of American life.”

By that logic, Starbucks should be bracing itself; it’s not as though “political and social tensions” have simmered down since the 2016 election. But while this year’s holiday cups have only been out one day, people seem relatively unconcerned about them so far.

Perhaps the holiday cup fury has burned itself out. Or maybe — more grimly — it’s just that the anger once directed toward Starbucks cups is now playing out, at a fever pitch, in every other sphere of American existence.

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