The War on What, Exactly: “Christmas”, Starbucks, Doctor Who, and Ombre-Is-The-New-Red

Every early-November, a lovely woman I used to work with would come in to the office, hands cupped joyously—reverently almost—around a tall vanilla latte in a bright red container, serene smile on her face as she breathed in the warm, sweet scent and sighed: “It’s like Christmas in a cup.”

So when I saw Starbucks Red Cups trending on social media these past few days, I was first struck with a sense of happy nostalgia, remembering that soft kind of joy—remembering the actual physical Starbucks that lived just off the Square, just close enough to the office that a trip there, back, and with a 5-7 person line in front of you could be made while on a lunch break without missing time; remembering the man who, weather permitting, played an old piano on the corner of the street, dressed to the nines and drawing applause; remembering the kindness of my supervisor, when we walked that way, who always bought her friends who lived outside a deliciously sticky and indulgent canelé from a local bakery, to the widest and most joyous of smiles, the other-end of the spectrum from my colleague and her Christmas-in-a-cup, and yet: perhaps not.

Perhaps not so opposite.

Because apparently, Starbucks Red Cups haven’t been trending because they’re an admittedly-consumerist symbol of a season of traditional warmth and light and giving and a kind of sacred appreciation of the world around you (because in the US, at least, Red Cups come out before Thanksgiving, which is also a winter holiday, and is also a part of the season I’m referencing). No: as it happens, Starbuck Red Cups are trending as a talking point because they’re not “Christmas-y Enough”; in fact, they represent a war on Christmas! Because they lack the previous, clearly religious iconography of past years (that’s sarcasm, for the record), and thus represent an outright assault on the Christian faith and its values.

Thankfully, I got in on this debacle (it’s a miracle, what moving to another country can do for one’s perspective) late enough in the game that other people have done most of the hard work of pointing out just how misguided this entire scenario really is—from the fact that it’s just not a rationally sound argument, to the larger societal question of what Christmas means from a religious perspective, or even a secular one—so I don’t have to waste time here with that endeavor.

Which means what I can do, here, is start to ask the real question at the foundation of this debacle. Which is: why are we so keen to see conflict everywhere? What is our war really on?

I could get technical and cite Girard, talk about mimetic desire and rivalry and violence and the need to scapegoat something in order to re-establish a status quo—but what I’m going to do instead is cite the BBC television show, Doctor Who, which summed my point up with impeccable pop-culture eloquence this past weekend:

It’s always the same, when you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you don’t know who’s going to die…how many hearts will be broken, how many lives shattered, how much blood will spill until everybody does what they were always going to have to do from the beginning: sit down and talk.

And the world, of course, is not a sci-fi monolith; we’re not talking aliens. Or genocide, or physical, actual war.

Are we?

Because wait. Aren’t the very divisions that spark something as trivial as a coffee-franchise-spurred War on Christmas and Values and Morals and my Morning Latte the same that, on different scales, in different circumstances, lead us to larger violence? Aren’t the very capacities to transfer attention and energy and care toward things like coffee cups and imagined offenses, and away from what I always understood was the actual meaning of the Season—peace and joy and love and appreciation and generosity and gratitude and compassion, above all else—aren’t those capacities the same whether we’re ignoring the woman, a man, a child in the cold on the street corner on our way to Starbucks, or if we’re ignoring the deaths of thousands, or millions in conflicts across oceans, on other shores?

And maybe we choose to see conflict everywhere because we feel it, because we are enmeshed in a cultural hullabaloo that takes those seasonal meanings and amps them up to fever pitch—because happiness is everywhere, and sometimes, that’s hard to swallow. It’s overwhelming when we cannot ourselves embody the ideal that is shoved down our throats by every commercial, every ad campaign, every staged-social-media post; and for as much as we can affirm, psychologically, that there’s “more to life than being happy”—in a season where a very particular and very effusive understanding of happiness and the perfection of a carefully-cultivated holiday image is King, perhaps the Doctor is right, in that we find it unforgivable that we can’t live up to that image. Unforgivable, that we cannot escape the culture of currency and balance it, at least, with a culture of compassion. That we spend millions on material items and so much less on building connection and showing and building affection and camaraderie and community. That we cannot possibly conceptualize the sprawling hatred and violence that consumes our world and so we have to not just channel our disappointment and our guilt and our rage at something manageable, tangible—a red cup in hand—but we also have to make a thing that’s small enough, innocuous enough that the emotion we’re seeking to transfer and purge won’t meet resistance. You can smash the cup; the cup can’t feel hurt. The cup won’t fight back.

These, perhaps, are our unforgivable transgressions—and maybe, against the backdrop of too many holiday lights and too loud carols and too much glitz and too many dollars, we see them, and we feel them, and we cannot keep them in.

But we’re only human. And these are only human failings, if indeed they’re really failings they’re only natural, only where we all start from. But if we just sit down for a moment, and start talking to one another—maybe we’ll realize that the only true failing is never to move from that starting-point, never to try and do better, see better, act better. To quote Starbucks’ VP of Design and Content: “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” And if we embrace that, maybe we’ll start sharing our stories, and understanding, and forgiving in others what it means to be human; and in so doing, learn to forgive ourselves.

And maybe, just maybe, then, there won’t be a need to seek out conflict everywhere: from battlefields and warzones to a harmless—if aesthetically pleasing—ruby-to-crimson ombre cup. Maybe the War can turn inward on itself: a War on Hate, a War on Othering, a War on what it Means to make a Human feel Less.

And if Starbucks—symbolic, monetized behemoth that it is—wants to try (genuinely or not, who knows?) to invite the kind of sharing, the kind of connecting, the kind of understanding and openness that leads to the kind of dialogue that might have the power to turn conflict in on itself, one day; if that’s what they want to try and offer on a blank cup, a blank canvas, that invites someone to give, well.

That, I think, is Christmas in a Cup, after all.

Image courtesy of Patheos.

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