The Red Cup Phenomenon: “Keeping Christ in Christmas”

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by Liz Niehoff

Let’s get something straight, right off the bat. I love coffee. My morning has not started until I have a cup of coffee in hand. What is more, there is something deeply theological, not to mention pastoral, about gathering around a table with a cup of tea or coffee. There have been times when I have experienced the melting of derision and the meeting halfway over a cup of joe. I have my preferences when it comes to coffee houses, environments, types of brews, dairy vs. nondairy, the ethics of coffee, and the like. Many of my friends do as well. But the type of cup my dark roast is delivered in matters very little to me, as long as I can sit across from someone and leisurely take the time to hear the peaks and valleys that comprise their walk through life.

Christmas is one of my favorite times of year. Last year, I spent it decorating palm trees in San Francisco, sipping on iced lattes. This year, I’ll be again freezing my bum off in the northeast clutching a Starbucks red cup. A red cup, you ask?

This week, Starbucks has become the center of scrutiny for its choice of a plain red cup as its holiday container, rather than its typical ornately decorated holiday fare. According to the Starbucks’ website, the corporation has traditionally used the container to “tell stories with its holiday cup designs. But this year, we desire to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” The solid, simple red and green cups have evidently sparked outrage among many, including many Christians, as they seem…rather un-Christmasy. Nowhere do they bid you “Merry Christmas,” or show signs of good cheer, with some even going as far as to claim that Starbucks “hates Jesus”

While I can understand the frustration of many—not having “Merry Christmas” all over these cups removes the public notion that the “Keep Christ in Christmas” movement fights so hard to preserve. Yet in a way, the simplicity of these cups might symbolize exactly the type of ministry Christ lived. Now, let me back up and justify that statement. I’m not attempting to compare our risen Lord and the largest coffee corporation in the United States. But embracing the simplicity and quietness of this holiday is radical, and is a movement toward inclusivity, as opposed to the exclusivity of writing “Merry Christmas” all over a cup. Christ’s ministry throughout the Gospel displays a radical inclusivity, whether it is the Son of Man sitting with the woman at the well, working on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors, or healing the man with leprosy. Jesus didn’t print his actions on a stone tablet, stand on a soap box, or write them on a Starbucks Cup (if that had been a thing). Rather, he acted as he saw fit, quietly at times, and publicly in others.

Would Jesus want “Merry Christmas” printed on a Starbucks cup? I don’t know. But I try to think of those words and the exclusive implications they might have for some this time of year, those for whom “Merry Christmas” does not seem to apply. For the first time, this new cup design is inclusive and open, without explicit references to a particular faith tradition.

In the run up to Advent and Christmas, what matters most is not a red or green cup and what fills it or where one purchases said beverage, but rather how, where, and with whom one chooses to consume it. The effort spent to purchase a cup for someone in need of cheer and pastoral care is more significant than a pre-printed generic holiday greeting.

So this season, whatever your feelings on “red cup-gate,” perhaps it is just the excuse to initiate a conversation with someone new, to reconnect with long lost friends, or to hear about the other. So much can happen with the help of a cup of coffee, seeing the face of Christ in another, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. And all of that can happen, regardless of the cup’s color.

Liz Niehoff has just begun serving as a full time hospice and home care staff chaplain in Danbury, Connecticut.

Comments 1

  1. Yes, beautiful simplicity.

    Crave embellishment? Pack a Sharpie.

    People in France are dying – and shell-shocked like America was after 911 – and we Americans rail on about designs on disposable cups.

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