Symbols make a difference. That is the reason the flap over the design of the Starbucks “holiday” cup is more than a tempest in a coffee cup.
Starbucks decided this year to paint their paper cups cascading shades of red and to leave off any symbols of the season. No snow flakes, no wreaths, no words saying “Happy Holidays” and no religious icons. Some people took offense and called it part of the “war on Christmas.” They see the move as a concession by Starbucks to those who want to take Christmas away from what they call our Christian nation.
I call it smart and sensitive. Displaying the color red in combination with Starbucks’ green logo in the month of December can say everything or say nothing. The genius of this approach is that interpretation is left to the cultural and religious mindset of the interpreter. To an observant Christian, red and green can mean Christmas. To someone who loves the winter season, the colors offer a special holiday feeling. Jews and people of other cultures and religious persuasions can feel included by not being excluded, and anyone who just wants a cup of coffee can ignore the packaging no matter what it looks like.
Ambiguity can be a good thing, especially when we try to consider the emotional sensitivities of diverse communities. Parochial religious symbols and practices belong in houses of worship and in the home, not in the public arena where religionists, secularists and anti-religionists need to find a way to live in harmony. The “read into it whatever you like” red cup invites us to do just that.
In the Chanukah story, the Maccabees fought the Syrian Greeks precisely to preserve religious and cultural freedom for everyone – in the home, the Temple, and in the market place. Who would have thought that it would be Starbucks that would emphasize that right in such a creative way? For those looking for a connection between Chanukah and Christmas, here is one we never saw coming. I guess God does work in strange ways! Happy Chanukah everybody.