The Starbucks Cup Controversy Proves One Thing: The “War on Christmas” Is Happening Earlier Each Year

Venti heathenism.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The Starbucks red-cup controversy makes it official: The war on Christmas has met Christmas creep.

Here’s how it happened: Like retailers unveiling seasonally themed merchandise in September in hopes of goosing sales, the media also gets extra-anxious as the calendar runs out of months. But instead of hoping to move a few extra reindeer sweaters and Christmas tree decorations, websites and television programs and social media sites are looking for hits, ratings, and attention.

The war on Christmas—which, of course, is not an actual war on Christmas—has been a reliable standard of the right-wing noise machine since 2004. That’s when Bill O’Reilly began a recurring segment on the O’Reilly Factor called “Christmas Under Siege.” It was clearly a hit. According to Media Matters, he took the campaign to his radio show three days later, ranting about then–New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s use of the word “holiday tree” to describe the annual lighting of the seasonal fir at Rockefeller Center. Over a period of few weeks, he also raged about the Sears website promoting a “holiday” wish list and a parade in Denver that nixed a “religious float” built by the Faith Bible Church. O’Reilly’s Christmas coverage began on Dec. 3. 

The next year, hostilities moved up by more than a month, courtesy of then–Fox News fixture John Gibson. He published a book on Oct. 20 called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. It got pushed back a bit the following year—the paperback edition was published on Halloween of 2006.

After that, most skirmishes in the war on Christmas seemed to take place after Thanksgiving—until this year. It was on Nov. 5 that Raheem Kassam of Breitbart’s London bureau noticed that Starbucks’ annual red cup, released by the retailer since 1997 to mark the holiday period, was missing stars or sleds or anything at all for that matter. “A whitewashing of Christmas,” he declared, in a post that has attracted more than 21,500 comments since it went live. That’s nothing compared with self-described social media personality Josh Feuerstein, who posted a video the same day decrying the 2015 cup. That one minute and eighteen second screed has, in the five days since, garnered more than 14 million views and been shared half a million times.

Then, of course, the more mainstream media piles on. (Hello!) So there is “Some Christians Are Extremely Unhappy About Starbucks’ New Holiday Cups” (105,000 Facebook shares) and “Most Christians Don’t Actually Care About Starbucks Cups.” Soon, Feuerstein is boasting that #MerryChristmasStarbucks is trending on Facebook, and Starbucks defenders have their own Twitter hashtag—#itsjustacup. 

Next, attention-getters enter the scene. Bristol Palin jumped in to say that that it’s all a plot by the left “to make Christians look stupid.” Then Donald Trump—a successful media attention hog since the 1970s—showed up Monday night, simultaneously claiming that those angered should consider a Starbucks boycott, that he would not renew a Starbucks lease in a Trump building, that we would all begin saying Merry Christmas if he became president, and that he didn’t “care” if anyone chose to buy Starbucks coffee or not.

True, as Dahlia Lithwick points out in Slate, “the truth is that in a week we won’t recall why we were all wasting time over” the Starbucks red cup fracas. But next year, we’ll again be reminded, thanks to some minor culture-war flare-up, that the war on Christmas is now as perennial and predictable as television repeats of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Once again, let me note that the war on Christmas warriors were so eager to weather the yuletide seige that they seized on the sale of the cup in Great Britain to make the case. And it’s not even Veterans Day yet. 

It’s going to be a long holiday season. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.