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Furor Over Starbucks Holiday Cups: Poe's Law in Action

It started last week with a breitbart.com article by Raheem Kassam. Though he claims he doesn't even like Starbucks coffee, Kassam looks forward to Starbucks' annual tradition of red cups for the holidays.

For those unfamiliar: one of Starbucks’ greatest marketing gimmicks is changing the colour of their cups from white to red every Christmas. I myself remember excitedly declaring to an ex-girlfriend how red cups heralded the beginning of Christmas.

But this year the cups were...missing something.

The Red Cups (do I need a trademark symbol after that?) are now an anti-Christmas symbol, with Starbucks declaring their formerly Christmassy cups to be “holiday beverages” and shedding any sign of Christmas from them.

Kassam compares this year's plan red cups with those of previous years:

To the left here, you’ll see the 2010 offering. Snowy, seasonal, at least it resembles something mildly festive and Western.

The same applies to the 2011 red cups, which have a dog sledging down a hill on the back of a snowman, snowflakes falling around them. It’s cute, really.

Because that's what Christmas is all about—cute snowmen. It's really hard to tell whether Kassam is serious or joking. Hilary Hanson of the Huffington Post takes Kassam at face value, but Federalist columnist Mollie Hemingway is convinced the rant was entirely tongue-in-cheek. It's not Onion material, but Kassam does drop a few lines that are so over-the-top that it's hard to imagine he was completely serious. For example:

And behold, Starbucks did conceive and bear a red cup, and called his name blasphemy.

But that's one problem with extreme views: it's hard to parody them in a way that can't be mistaken for the genuine article.

Take the video rant of former pastor Joshua Feuerstein. Hanson notes that Feuerstein

claimed in a viral Facebook video that he had “pranked” Starbucks by simply telling them his name was “Merry Christmas” -- thus forcing the surely unimpressed barista to write the words “Merry Christmas” on the cup.

Feuerstein was later invited on CNN to discuss his objections to the holiday cups.

Well, I think it's much more than just a cup. I think it's the overall narrative and I think that the cup is very symbolic—parabolic—in that it parallels a society that is essentially trying to remove Christmas from Christmas.

While a good case can be made that Feuerstein does not represent mainstream Christianity, his rants do appear to be genuine and not satirical. But..."parabolic"?

Anyway, now that it's become an issue, political candidates are starting to weigh in. For example, Donald Trump:

I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don't know. Seriously, I don't care. That's the end of that lease, but who cares? If I become president, we're all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you. That I can tell you.

I doubt Trump is sincere, about this or anything else. But when a candidate seeking the United States' highest office feels compelled to consider a Starbucks boycott over plain red cups, the joke has gone too far.

And in fact, Trump is not the first politician to question Starbucks' commitment to Christ. Back in September, even before the holiday cups were announced, Representative Allen West (R-Florida) advocated a boycott of Starbucks by Christians, due to a 2013 comment by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz reiterating his company's support for same-sex marriage in its efforts to embrace diversity. When a shareholder questioned the economic wisdom of such a stance, Schultz replied

If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38 percent you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.

Forbes magazine reports that the audience broke out in applause. West, on the other hand, considers this stance a form of hypocrisy.

But let me get this one straight. A private mom and pop shop goes through hell for not wanting to bake a darn cake for a gay wedding, but this publicly-held corporation is applauded for saying we don’t want your money to everyone who doesn’t think like them?

But West's comparison of coffee and cake seems more like apples and oranges. Schwartz never said Starbucks would refuse to serve coffee to opponents of gay marriage, and in fact Feuerstein proved that a person could claim to be named "Merry Christmas" and still receive a cup of overpriced frappuccino. But the company's public stance in favor of same-sex marriage appears to be an undercurrent in this week's teapot tempest over snowman-deficient coffee cups.

After the cup controversy blew up, a number of more level-headed Christians offered alternative visions. Pastor Emily Cheath suggested:

But maybe, for at least some of us who are Christians, there’s another way. One where we don’t overlook the celebration of gratitude that comes later this month. And one that doesn’t overshadow the season of Advent, a time when Christians are asked to prepare their hearts that Christ may be born in the anew. One where we are asked to focus on hope, peace, joy, and love.

Scholar Jared Byas offered (emphasis in original):

For me, keeping the Christ in Christmas is not about winning the culture war — but about losing it.

Given statements about the first being last, and given his way of death, it seems Jesus’ goal was more about losing than winning. It was his unwillingness to fight the sinners that was often the most powerful weapon in his arsenal. And it was often this unwillingness to fight that most upset the religious.

It wouldn't hurt if more Christians followed Jesus' example.

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