Business

Starbucks holiday cups were once a flash point in a ‘war on Christmas.’ Now they’re a meme.

"I think we're in a time as a society where culture wars can flare around anything that's seen as perhaps an indicator of you being on one side or the other."

Starbucks
Since 2019, no blowups have ensued about the Starbucks cup designs, but people online carry on the tradition of jokes.


The annual Starbucks holiday cups have been released, and there’s not a Christmas tree or Santa icon to be found.

Cue the outrage – or not.

The cultural conversation around the seasonal cups has come a long way since 2015. That year, a self-described “evangelist” accused the coffee vessels of fomenting a new front in a “war on Christmas,” and right-wing outlets from Fox News to Breitbart amplified his claims. The allegation immediately fueled more mockery than sympathetic indignation.

Six years later, the release of the 2021 cups – replete with images of ribbons and gift tags – was met Thursday with gleeful witticisms about how this year’s battle to ruin the monumental Christian holiday could finally begin.

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“BREAKING: Starbucks releases their holiday cups” one person wrote on Twitter. “The first shots have been fired signaling the war on Christmas has begun.”

It’s no surprise that the Starbucks holiday designs would spark dialogue. Consumers are drawn to the cups because the tradition is dependable and novel, said Margaret Campbell, a marketing professor at the University of California at Riverside. Making fun of the niche anger about them is another way to engage.

“I think we’re in a time as a society where culture wars can flare around anything that’s seen as perhaps an indicator of you being on one side or the other,” Campbell said. “And yet at the same time, I think the reason people are joking about it is because it’s a Starbucks cup. It is not a war on Christmas.”

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Asked to comment on the cups’ evolution from cultural flash point to comedic target, Starbucks would say only that its cups herald the arrival of the holiday season.

“Our customers have shared with us that our cups and their first sip of peppermint mocha are so special and mark the beginning of holiday season,” the company said in a statement. “Starbucks holiday cups are thoughtfully designed each year, and this year are wrapped up like gifts for the holidays – with festive colors of red, green and white and touches of lilac.”

2015

After nearly two decades of imprinting holiday symbols on most of their seasonal cups, Starbucks unveils a two-toned ombrΓ© design in which “a bright poppy color on top morphed into a darker cranberry below.”

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“In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs,” Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks vice president of design and content, says in a statement. “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”

To Joshua Feuerstein, an Arizona-based “social media personality,” this is unacceptable. In a widely viewed Facebook video, he rants that Starbucks has eliminated Christmas symbols from its holiday cups “because they hate Jesus.”

“Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups?” he declares, holding up one of the offending paper products. “That’s why they’re just plain red.”

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Never mind, of course, that Jesus Christ has not been depicted on any holiday cup since Starbucks debuted the series in 1997.

Donald Trump, then viewed as a long-shot presidential candidate, floats the idea of boycotting Starbucks. Most Christians, meanwhile, are not actually mad.

2016

The holiday cups are once again, well, holiday-themed, as Starbucks debuts 13 designs hand-drawn by artists in six countries. One cup features Santa on a sleigh. Christmas appears to be back.

Then a political consultant posts a video of Starbucks employees allegedly calling police on a man who asked baristas to write “Trump” as the name on his cup. Cue Operation #TrumpCup, a spinoff of Feuerstein’s effort to get customers to give their names as “Merry Christmas” so baristas would have to write it.

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At a rally, Trump threatens to end Starbucks’s lease of a space in Trump Tower in New York City.

“If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, that I can tell you,” he says.

2017

For the first time, the Starbucks holiday cup is white. It features two arms holding hands, surrounded by ribbons and other Christmas imagery.

The problem, this time, is that the genders of the people with connecting arms are unclear. BuzzFeed reacts to the ambiguity with excitement (“The Hands are definitely gay, right?“), while The Blaze accuses the coffee behemoth of waging a “‘gay agenda’ campaign.”

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Starbucks refuses to confirm or deny that the arms represent a same-sex couple. The Blaze notes that more people seem to be tweeting jokes about the situation than actually expressing concern.

2018

Four red, white and green disposable cup designs feature subtle holiday imagery, including holly and stars. One reusable cup is solid red. Starbucks escapes another round of social media crusades, while Twitter users instead make wisecracks about the cups’ outsize cultural significance.

2019

Starbucks releases four new designs resembling wrapping paper: polka dots, “Merry Coffee” in dancing letters, the same phrase written in slim stripes and thick candy-cane stripes.

“We came up with this idea of wrapping the stores in holiday joy and wrapping the cups like a gift to our partners and customers,” Jen Quotson, vice president of Starbucks Creative, says in a statement. “We wanted coming to Starbucks to be like uncovering a present.”

A few people roll their eyes at the phrase “Merry Coffee.” Some snarkily suggest that the – as they see it – unimaginative phrase represents another line of attack in the war on Christmas. Fox News goes out of its way to opine that “‘Merry Coffee’ cups look a lot like Christmas – without saying it.”

Otherwise, Starbucks escapes another holiday season unscathed.

2020

The holiday cups are themed “Carry the Merry,” a clear reference to “Merry Christmas.” Starbucks encourages customers to bring “them out in the world as messengers of joy.”

No blowups ensue, but people online carry on the tradition of jokes.

2021

This year’s cups are present-themed, and each design includes a gift tag with room for a barista to write a message. The cups are meant to feel magical, warm and inclusive, the company says.

Delish declares them “*so* cute.” Pop Sugar says they’re “sure to make spirits bright.” People on Twitter chortle about how it’s time for the war on Christmas to begin anew.

All is calm, all is nigh.

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