Thanksgiving is right around the corner, which means it is time to embark on a modern American holiday tradition: over-analyzing seasonally available Starbucks cups for signs of liberal nefariousness.
Starbucks has produced holiday cups for 20 years. Some have come and gone with little commotion, but others have drawn the ire of conservatives for what some have seen as a secular design scheme that failed to show proper respect for Christianity.
This year’s cup features nods to Christmas tradition, including a decorated Christmas tree, and was introduced by an online video that proclaimed “the holidays mean something different to everyone.”
But that big-tent approach wasn’t enough to avoid controversy. This year, critics wonder if Starbucks is using its holiday cups to promote homosexuality.
What is going on here, you may ask? Read on.
The online video that introduced the 2017 holiday cup on Nov. 1 featured a diverse cast of Starbucks customers, including a pair of cartoon women who were shown holding hands.
The nature of their relationship was not specified, but some viewers saw them as a nod toward the inclusion of gay and transgender customers.
The video itself did not attract negative attention. The latest controversy has focused instead on a pair of gender-neutral hands holding each other on the side of the cup itself.
Those linked hands came to wider public attention after BuzzFeed published an article about them on Wednesday.
It suggested the cup was “totally gay.”
“While people who follow both Starbucks holiday cup news and L.G.B.T. issues celebrated the video, the ordinary Starbucks customer probably didn’t realize the cup might have a gay agenda,” BuzzFeed said.
After that, it was off to the races.
Fox News picked up the story of what it called the “androgynous” cartoon hands, referring to Bible-quoting critics of Starbucks and criticizing BuzzFeed, which it said had “asserted the hypothesis is fact.”
The conservative site The Blaze also waded in, saying Starbucks had launched a “gay agenda campaign.”
Fox said it asked Starbucks about the cartoons but the company “neither confirms nor denies the allegations,” by which it presumably meant the promotion of lesbianism.
But in an email to The Times, Starbucks said it would let customers decide for themselves what the cup was about.
“This year’s hand-drawn cup features scenes of celebrating with loved ones — whoever they may be,” said Sanja Gould, a company spokeswoman. “We intentionally designed the cup so our customers can interpret it in their own way, adding their own color and illustrations.”
Controversy over the design of seasonal Starbucks cups is just one front in an annual culture war over the role of religion and liberalism in the five-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, a period that people inclined toward interfaith outreach might call “the holiday season.”
Like many divisive cultural debates, arguments over the Christian bona fides of seasonal Starbucks cups appear to have intensified during the 2016 presidential campaign as political and social tensions heightened in many areas of American life.
In 2015, Starbucks announced it would remove traditional holiday symbols, like reindeer and Christmas trees, from its holiday cups in favor of a more minimalist red design.
In a statement released at the time, the company said it wanted to “create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity” and meant the cups as an invitation for “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way, with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas.”
That decision was met with an angry online backlash from conservatives and others who saw it as an example of political correctness run amok. Joshua Feuerstein, a conservative Christian activist with a robust social media presence, urged a boycott in a Facebook video that has been viewed over 17 million times.
One of the people who weighed in on the 2015 Starbucks controversy was then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who frequently used his campaign speeches to complain about people and retailers who say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.”
At a rally that November, he identified Starbucks as an offender and suggested the company was due for some backlash.
“I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower,” he told the crowd. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. That’s the end of that lease, but who cares?”
When asked why Starbucks, a mammoth global brand, seemed to get ensnared in seasonal controversies so often, Ms. Gould, the spokeswoman, demurred.
In an email, she said that each customer’s experience was “intensely personal,” and said the company was “humbled by how passionate customers are about our holiday cups.”
The cup controversy has been less heated this year, though. Mr. Trump has not weighed in on the alleged sexual orientation of the cartoon, and Mr. Feuerstein also appeared to be sitting this one out, according to a post he wrote on Facebook.
He said this year he was focused on “building a friendship and witnessing to a gay black man who works at the Starbucks” he frequents instead of stoking online outrage.
“I’m supposed to be taking him to dinner soon and hopefully sharing the rest of the gospel with him,” he wrote. “There’s your controversy.”