Once again, a minor provocation has set off the right wing: Starbucks’ choice of a plain red background for their holiday cups. From an Arizona evangelist who says the un-Christmasy cups are a sign that Starbucks “hates Jesus” to Donald Trump calling for a boycott to dueling #MerryChristmasStarbucks and #ItsJustACup hashtags, it all seems like a textbook case of trivial ridiculousness.
But it’s not ridiculous — because it’s not about the cup. It’s not even about Christmas. It’s really about two things we humans don’t do well: change and grief.
Our nation is changing, and major illusions are falling away. The illusion that we’re all Christian (and White, straight, married with children, etc.). The illusion that everyone should be, or wants to be Christian (or White, straight, married with children etc.). The illusion that “our way” is the only way, or the best way—not just when it comes to holidays, but our other cherished institutions like healthcare, democracy and education. It’s a basic human illusion that “we” are all the same, and “they” all want to be like “us” – or at least the good and smart “theys” do.
Things are rough for people who hold these illusions. Their way was the most visible way, held up as normal and ideal, for centuries. The rest of us have always been here. But not only are we no longer silent or invisible, our numbers and power are growing.
In the face of such change, people who hold onto the illusions feel disrespected and violated. The red cup insults them because of what it represents. It represents the fact that there are December holidays other than Christmas that people (most people on earth, actually) cherish equally or even more! It represents the fact that Christmas (AKA Christ) isn’t the driving force in everyone’s life, nor do we all want it to be. It represents the fact that billions of humans enjoy happy, ethical, productive lives without Christ, or even religion or spirituality. The red cup is a sign that things are changing, and they’re taking it personally. They want to go back to the way things were. They want us to go back to assimilating, and keeping quiet.
How fragile their beliefs must be! We’ve lived among them, passionate about other deities, holidays, ideas and beliefs (there’s no such thing as a “non-believer”) for centuries, enduring politely in the midst of constant Christmas and omnipresent Christianity. We’ve lived our values despite invisibility and lack of appreciation or even knowledge about what we hold sacred. They are in no such danger of invisibility, yet they act as if facing the threat of extinction.
They’re fearful and grieving. I understand. Grief is about loss, and often shows up as anger instead. They have every right to grieve and be angry because they have lost. They’ve lost many precious illusions about how the world is and how it should be. They’re not used to making room for us, sharing the air with us, or hearing how we feel. But it’s not going back to the way it was. Despite what Rubio said in Tuesday night’s Republican debate, conservatism isn’t the wave of the 21st Century because the fact is for decades, we’ve grown increasingly liberal on social issues.
They’re fearful and grieving, yet I believe they can choose resilience and living in integrity with their values. “Happy Holidays”, and any number of other inclusive phrases, takes nothing away from “Merry Christmas”. It embraces all holy-days. To them, that feels like diminishing their holiday because they’re not accustomed to sharing, but all it’s diminishing is their cultural monopoly and their privilege of exclusivity.
“Happy Holidays” expresses good cheer, good will and generosity and connection to everyone, with or without Christ. Isn’t that “the message of the season”? Jesus and Christmas never had a monopoly on December (he wasn’t born in winter, by the way) – winter celebrations are as old as humanity itself for ancient reasons of community, warmth and survival. “Merry Christmas” may be intended in that same spirit, but the phrase never included the rest of us. You didn’t really see us when you said it to us.
New awareness requires a change of behavior. Change is hard for people who not only believe that the only Truth was written in an ancient book unfiltered by politics, culture and the human brain, but also believe everyone needs to adhere to that Truth (mostly around sexual activity and holidays, it seems) to avoid the wrath of a god without whose good graces our nation is doomed. But that’s just a belief. Change is hard for those who believe that we used to be a righteous, moral, “God-fearing” nation and no longer are (because of Jesus-hating Starbucks and not because of all the people-hating things we do). But that’s a narrow, romantic notion born out of a male, White, straight, Christian dream that was a nightmare for most of us who weren’t those things.
It’s not just a cup, but an invitation: to those threatened by the red holiday Starbucks cup to bring the generosity and compassion of the season into themselves and grieve the loss of what it represents. Then maybe they can recognize that there is plenty of room for them and their beliefs (including Christmas) in this new world, as long as they don’t interfere with the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the rest of us. I for one don’t need you to agree with my beliefs to wish you well this holiday season. And that’s something the Jesus I know would say “cheers” to.