This year, Starbucks changed its holiday season cup to a simple red design, and the internet blew up... I'm guessing coffee sales did too. Well played, you over-priced coffee shop. But what really happened.
Basically, a few people noticed that Starbucks went with a basic red cup this year, stripping away some of the winter/holiday designs of previous years. To these people this move said, "We are going to broaden our scope and offend less people by making the cup less Christian." Apparently, some Christians began verbally protesting the de-Christmasing of Starbucks cups, and some probably called for a boycott. For the record, these were not very profound expressions, as I am a social media junkie with friends all over the spectrum, and I didn't really see any of the protests in my feed.
What I did notice was a barrage of Christians protesting those few who were supposedly protesting the move away from holiday toward a more secular look. The ones 'offended' by the move to a red cup were chastised for not caring about important things like homelessness and adoption. I heard things like, "This protesting is why some people aren't Christians," and "Starbucks isn't supposed to be Christian... we are," and even, "It's just a cup!!!"
Well... let me stop the discussion right there. That sounds really good. "It's just a cup!" It sounds like a great argument for not making a mountain out of a mole hill. After all, a cup cannot change the course of history. Cups don't matter, right? It is disposable. It is simply a color. Hmmmm...
I think cups can change the course of history. In fact, they have. I remember one time when a man took a regular cup, shared it with His friends and said, “This cup is the new covenant established by My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." (1 Corinthians 11:25) Was that "just a cup"? Throughout Scripture various cups had a profound impact in history. The apostle Paul even referred to his own life being 'poured out as a drink offering' of service to God.
Even in your life, a cup is not just a cup. If you showed up to a nice dinner and the table was set with fine china... and Dixie cups, you would think something. You would probably say something. And it probably wouldn't be, "Oh... it's just a cup." If someone handed you a dirty cup of water to drink, you wouldn't say, "It doesn't matter... it's just a cup." When you go shopping for your next set of tableware, you won't just grab any old set of glasses. You'll spend time looking for the design you like. Why? Because your cups, glasses, plates say something about you and your taste. When you want to make a statement about your personality... it isn't just a cup. I think this is especially true around the holidays. Right?
And what about design? What does it mean that a cup isn't just a cup... even when it is just plain red? You may not know this, but companies like Starbucks spend millions of dollars in marketing and design work to make sure their products make a statement. Literally millions of dollars go into decisions that some of us make in a few minutes. Why? Because they are all about the brand. They identify so much with design that if you were in one of their marketing meetings and said, "Who cares about the color of the cup, or if it has any message or pictures on it?"... you would likely be fired on the spot. No one at Starbucks thinks this red cup is "Just a cup."
So if Starbucks does not believe the red holiday cup is just a cup, why would they just make it red? Are they simply about simplicity? Well, of course not. They gave birth to the premium priced coffee for the everyday man and woman. Simplicity is not in their nature. Then why? Why a plain-jane cup during the holiday season? If you look at their previous holiday cups, they were obviously wintery. Were they Christmasy? Well, no... not in the evangelical sense. They didn't have a baby Jesus or quotes from Luke 2. But they were certainly Christmasy in the cultural sense (which is not a bad thing, by the way.) The cups were festive with markings that symbolized the time of year and the idea that we were celebrating something.
Over the last few years they have finally stripped it down to a simple red cup. This is where the move is significant and causes me to think it is not "just a cup." The holiday cup never sported a decidedly Christian theme for Christmas, but it did reflect the holiday. The word holiday comes from the phrase 'Holy day'. These are days set aside in religions, and in culture to celebrate something we all value. So Starbucks seems to be stepping away from even the celebration of the cultural holiday.
This move coincides with the broader cultural move away from religion in general and Christianity in particular. A generation ago, many Americans identified as Christian in surveys. As the culture became more humanistic, or secularized, fewer identified as being part of any religion. Now, more than ever, the 'non-Christians' are marking the "None" box when asked about their religion. These are called 'the nones' by sociologists. People who have walked away from organized religion will not find significance in religious expression. They will even see recognition of these elements as divisive and offensive. They often purge their life of religiously significant moments and holidays... even the cultural expression of those holidays that bear little resemblance to the religious foundations.
So it makes absolute sense that Starbucks is moving in a parallel direction with the 'nones'. A large part of Starbucks' base would likely be 'nones'. So the move away from the celebration of spiritually significant holidays would be a brilliant move on their part, and in keeping with their values. But in a world that is increasingly interested in personal significance, what does it say that a company goes from festive to plain in their holiday marketing. Certainly they are not just cheap and do not want to spend money on printing designs. Remember, a lot of money and discussion went into the design decision to make a cup red. So saying it is 'just a cup' flies in the face of the reality.
I think all of this points to the fact that it is not "just a cup." It is a decision to be religiously bland or vanilla. But beyond that, it is a reflection of what life looks like without holy days... without festive elements. Life without religion may have been a dream for John Lennon. But those who dream of no religion will dream in black and white... and grey... and maybe just see red. This is not just true of a coffee cup. It is true of a soul.
The more one moves away from Christ, and the life that comes through Him, the less creative significance they will exude. Everything a believer does has value. If I drink out of a cup that has racist slogans and symbols on it, you wouldn't say it is "just a cup." Everything we do tells something about us. This false line between the sacred and the secular is being exposed for what it is on a daily basis in our culture.
Sure... helping the poor is important. Caring for orphans is valid. All of these activities say something about our values as Christians. But we must be careful to not slip into the mindset of thinking that some parts of our lives don't matter. A movie is not just a movie. A TV show is not just generic entertainment. A song is not just notes on a page. Each of these carries meaning... on purpose. So we must be wise to understand that every part of life has purpose. One can excuse a lot of sin by saying, "It's just a magazine/website/beverage/joke/etc."
This blog is not to paint Starbucks as evil. They may or may not realize the philosophical decisions they are making. I'm not suggesting we boycott Starbucks. I don't believe the red cup represents the Devil. I am saying that dismissing something as just a small material substance when there is nothing that is only material is as naive as suggesting that Starbucks is Satan's brew. Perhaps we should remember Paul's words...
"Whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Drink your Starbucks, or your Folgers. But realize that even the partaking of food is a spiritual thing, and says something about you. Starbucks realizes this. We should as well.
[Bible quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, unless otherwise noted.]
Find more of David’s work at Heart Of Ministry.
My name is David, and I want to know God more, and help other people find Him.