Here at Canadian Atheist we’ve been diligently preparing for the War on Christmas, but in the United States an opening skirmish has already taken place. Starbucks, that fount of decent enough coffee and unfailing pretentiousness, decided to [trigger warning!] unveil “hoilday cups” that were red in colour but had no pictures on them, other than the Starbucks logo depicting a cropped and bowdlerized version of a 15th century Norse woodcut of a mermaid (file that one away under “unfailing pretentiousness”, in this case all the worse for being combined with a tiresome puritanism). I don’t think anyone was expecting a beaming Baby Jesus, or even a pair of duelling dinosaurs (hell, it’s good enough to link to twice), but the lack of a Santa Claus, a snowperson, a Christmas tree or even a lousy snowflake prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain quarters.
The hue and cry apparently started with an ex-pastor called Feuerstein who accused Starbucks of hating Jesus, and expanded into a small but stentorian chorus of indignation. Improbable and frequently incoherent US presidential candidate Donald Trump mused about boycotting Starbucks, while also saying that he didn’t care (about the red cups, presumably, although that wasn’t entirely clear). Across the pond, Evangelical Christian activist Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, suggested that the decision to use plain red cups “denies the hope of Jesus Christ and His story told so powerfully at this time of year” (early November?!). One Raheem Kassam diligently and rather wittily traced the degeneration of Starbucks holiday cups from conspicuous stars and a background “that resembles the branches of a Christmas tree” (2009) through “a dog sledging down a hill on the back of a snowman” (2011) to a horrifically monochromatic field of red (our benighted present), while also sneaking in a petulant complaint that Starbucks staff often wrote down his name as “Ragih”.
Many Christians, even in America, fortunately remain versed in the moribund art of keeping things in perspective. Starbucks headquarters in Seattle did not find itself besieged by crusader armies, and the ranks of the genuinely outraged appeared satisfyingly thin. Nevertheless, there is something vaguely pathetic about those plain scarlet cups, and especially about Starbucks’ own attempts to explain or defend them.
“This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories,” said Starbucks’ Vice President of Design & Content Jeffrey Fields.
So, we’re apparently to believe that a field of unbroken red exemplifies “purity of design” as opposed to simple blandness, which strikes me as ridiculous spin. I guess three hundred blank pages would welcome anyone’s story, but y’know, there’s a reason people prefer to buy actual novels.
“Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays,” Fields added. “We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It’s a more open way to usher in the holiday.”
Those “holidays” sure need a lot of ushering. And Starbucks has “become a place of sanctuary”? Oh, for fuck’s sake. Sanctuary from whom or what? See “unfailing pretentiousness”, above.
Another pronouncement from Starbucks was at least a little more plain-spoken.
In response to Feuerstein’s video, Starbucks said in a statement Sunday that it tries “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.”
The problem is, however, that inclusion is characteristically boring. It’s tepid, it’s vanilla, it tends towards the lowest common denominator and entails a soul-crushing effort to be all things to all people. Inclusion is having “some white fish or chicken (not always distinguishable from each other)” at a diplomatic dinner because pork, beef, shellfish, “most cheese” and “anything too spicy” might offend some delicate palate or delicate religious sensibility. Inclusion is drab, mushy and soporific.
Despite the downsides, inclusion is an unavoidable necessity or at least a highly advantageous approach on some occasions, such as when a government is inviting foreign ministers from around the world to dinner. Selling coffee, though, is a different matter. Those plain red Starbucks cups guarantee that a Christmasophobe in search of a cappuccino won’t be confronted with imagery that might ruffle his or her feathers, but also guarantee that a Christmasophile won’t feel explicitly welcomed or affirmed. A cup featuring a little Christmas tree or a reindeer might do the opposite. Starbucks no doubt had its reasons, including but likely not limited to economically rational concern for the bottom line, for opting for inclusive dullness. At least one other major American chain has gone more or less in the opposite direction.
Unlike Richard Dawkins, I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself even a cultural Christian. If anything, I think the Christian influence on Western culture has been generally a negative and enervating one, and I’d rather repudiate than embrace it. However, I don’t mind keeping a few little mementoes of our prolonged Christian phase around, even in our anthem and whatnot, and like the American writer Jay Parini I’m well aware that Christmas is just a superficially Christian gloss on a seasonal celebration with far deeper historical roots. While I’d welcome a return to Yule or Sol Invictus, I certainly prefer Christmas to the bleak generic blandness of “the holidays”. Other things being equal, I’d quite like a reindeer or something on my coffee cup, and I’d even prefer a trite nativity cartoon to just plain red. Coffee merchants, kindly take note. And while I’m issuing directives, please for the love of Santa wait until December to start all this!