Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Move Over, ‘Happy Holidays’: Starbucks’ Cup Opens a New Front in the ‘War on Christmas’

Starbucks' 2015 holiday cup — an assault on Christmas, or just a red cup? (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Somehow, Starbucks’ innocuous new 2015 holiday cup has been whipped up into a controversy. If you’ve ever doubted how ridiculous claims of a so-called “War on Christmas” are, the outrage at and proposed boycott of Starbucks over its cup should remove that doubt. Starbucks’ cup, which are plain red, has been termed an “anti-Christmas symbol,” a “monstrosity,” and an attempt  at “taking the Christ out of Christmas.” I suppose this campaign is being latched onto by the same faction of conservatives who bristle when someone innocently greets with “Happy Holidays.”

This is a case of intolerant Christians looking to have their cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, Christians hotly rightly defend their religious freedom, even to the point (rightly, I believe, though with strong moral reservations) of defending private Christian businesses’ freedom to discriminate against same-sex couples. On the other hand, they want to deny non-Christians the moral right to celebrate Christmas in their own way, based on their conscientious convictions, by privately taking Christ out of Christmas or Christmas out of the holiday season. (I take Christ out of Christmas. Why not? I disagree with almost every fundamental premise ascribed to him. But I don’t take Christmas out of the holiday season, for reasons expressed below and in my annual Christmas post.)

Starbucks, for its part, must be amazed at the whole controversy. Its 2015 cup continues a tradition of specially designed holiday cups that dates back to 1997. In a statement, the company offers that its cup tradition is consistent with its “core values”; “to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world.” Doesn’t sound like a “War on Christmas”—or a war on anything—to me.

The anti-Starbucks activism is believed to have been initiated on Facebook by Joshua Feuerstein, a self-described "American evangelist, internet and social media personality."

What the activists need to understand is that Christmas long ago ceased being a strictly Christian holiday; specifically, ever since President Ulysses S. Grant signed the first federal holiday law on June 28, 1870. That law established New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day as national holidays.

In America—the land of the First Amendment—Christmas can not be considered a Christian holiday, or even a religious one. Why? A legally recognized religious holiday in a nation based on religious freedom—which means, more broadly, freedom of conscience—is a fundamental impossibility. To claim otherwise is to repudiate one of America’s foundational principles, the separation of church and state.

Christmas is a secular holiday—which means, it’s meaning is determined individually by each citizen who chooses to celebrate it. For some, it may have deeply religious meaning. For another, a light-hearted excuse to celebrate; for others, a commercial importance—a chance to make big bucks from holiday shoppers; for some, a family-oriented meaning; or a combination of these. For most, it is a chance to express goodwill and cheer to one’s fellow man. Goodwill is not a monopoly of Christianity.

Zealots’ protests to the contrary notwithstanding, Christmas became secular the minute it was declared a national holiday by Congress. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .” This, by definition, makes any national, legally recognized holiday a secular holiday, to be observed and celebrated according to the personal convictions of each individual. With Christmas a national holiday, the term “Christmas,” in common usage, must be considered a generic term. There is no meaningful distinction between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” The thin-skinned, self-righteous Christians who are making an issue of Starbucks’s Holiday cups are plain old ordinary hypocrites. They want their freedom of conscience, but then protest others for practicing theirs.

There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” Activist Christians petitioned Congress to include Christmas in the 1870 holiday law, and Congress obliged. Christians who now complain about the secularization of Christmas are free, under the same First Amendment, to petition Congress to de-legalize Christmas. But stop smearing Starbucks, which is simply granting respect to all people’s right to personalize the meaning of Christmas season for their own sake.

On second thought, I suspect that de-legalizing Christmas won’t change its culturally secular nature. It’s probably too late for that. Christmas has become a generic recognition of an end-of-the-year celebration. No act of Congress can undo that. When Christmas became a national holiday, Christians lost the right to claim Christmas as “their” holiday, no matter what any future congress does.

But this should not offend Christians. Secular means neutrality. Though it doesn’t automatically mean Christian, it doesn't mean atheist, either. It doesn’t mean commercial. It doesn’t mean family. It doesn't have any anti-Christ or anti-Christian meaning at all. secular means it doesn’t mean anything until we as individuals give it meaning. Nor does it forbid anyone to keep Christ in Christmas. Christians are of course free to privately celebrate Christmas according to their own beliefs and principles. But non-Christians, whether adherents of other religions or no religion, theist or atheist, have the same right. I suspect that most Christians, being people of goodwill, would cheer Starbucks’ policy of inclusion. That would be consistent with Christmas.

Christmas is first and foremost an American holiday. Let’s just enjoy it each in our own way.

Related Reading:

Starbucks/USA Today’s Racist “Race Together” Campaign


Steve D said...

'There is no meaningful distinction between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.”'

Merry Christmas is singular and refers to a single day. Happy Holidays (plural) refers to at least two days; New Year's Day and Christmas, perhaps also Hanukah, Thanksgiving, Dec 26 etc..

Michael A. LaFerrara said...

True. But both encompass Christmas. Both are offerings of good will. Merry Christmas doesn't imply an automatic Christian greeting. Happy Holidays doesn't imply an automatic anti-Christian greeting. Happy Holidays in no way involves a "War on Christmas," as some of my Christian friends think.