Seeing Red

Social media has been abuzz the last two days over coffee cups.

That’s right, coffee cups. Specifically, Starbucks’ “holiday” coffee cups, which this year are plain red. No Merry Christmas. No Happy Holidays. No reindeer, snowflakes or jingle bells. Someone posted a video online railing against them for removing all references to Christmas and accused them of “hating Jesus.” The mainstream media are reporting that Christian groups are calling for a boycott, when in fact, no “group” has done so. I think this whole kerfuffle tells us more about the disproportionate power of one cranky guy with a cellphone video than it does about some grass roots, widespread outrage that a coffee cup doesn’t say Merry Christmas on it. I also think it speaks volumes about media and our culture’s image of who Christians are, but that’s a story for another day.

Still, it got me thinking. It doesn’t bother me at all that a commercial establishment isn’t wishing me Merry Christmas or Happy Hannukah or Joyous Kwanzaa. In fact, I kind of like it. The “holiday season” as we are now to call it, has become an unrecognizable mash up of traditions, beliefs and customs of these three holidays.

The only thing they have in common is gift giving, which is I suppose why retail is so invested in celebrating and promoting them. These December holidays celebrate different things and mean different things, and yet by accident of timing, find themselves squeezed into seats in the middle row of an airplane, sharing armrests uneasily, on a very long flight.

They do have one other thing in common. They all have an element of joy and love, and so I guess it’s natural to want to acknowledge this to people you encounter during this time. But what do you say?

Giving holiday greetings can require a kind of “spiritual profiling” that is risky business.

How do you know who will welcome a “Merry Christmas” and who will not? I guess this is the dilemma that the bland “Happy Holidays!” is meant to solve. (I don’t really mind it, except once, in church, someone wished me a Happy Holiday and my head almost exploded. I mean, come on, if we can’t say Merry Christmas in church then all is lost.)

I do understand the need to find some generic way of acknowledging the disparate celebrations that share a month. I can live with Happy Holidays because it’s a fact of life: there are several celebrations going on at the same time and the speaker often doesn’t know which one (if any) you celebrate. Not an elegant solution, but it’ll do.

What does bugs me is when we try to redefine things within any of those traditions. Case in point: Holiday Tree. It’s not a holiday tree. It is a Christmas tree because it is part of the tradition of celebrating that particular holiday. Now, you don’t have to be a Christian to have or appreciate a Christmas tree, but the fact is, it is inextricably bound with that Christian tradition. You don’t see anybody trying to call a dreidel a holiday spinning toy, do you? Well, maybe that’s next.

Finally, two scenes came to mind when I starting seeing that Starbucks red cup all over Twitter: The first was in a parking garage where the cashier was Muslim (it seemed so by her dress and headscarf. Spiritual profiling is tricky). As she handed me my change, she said, “Merry Christmas!” Next, I’m walking in the Old City of Jerusalem on a Friday morning. I asked someone for directions, which she gladly gave and as she left she said, “Shabbat Shalom!” Both of these women made assumptions about who I was, what I believed, what I celebrated. Neither offended me. Quite the opposite. Each of them offered me warm human connection. Each offered me a blessing. They made me smile.

So, I welcome all expressions of good wishes and blessing, regardless of whether you “guess right” about what holiday I will be celebrating next month.

Or, if you’re like Starbucks, and you have no celebratory words for me, that’s fine, too. I prefer to get my blessings from people, not coffee cups.

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