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A Brief History of Starbucks’ Holiday Cup Controversies

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The coffee chain’s seasonal cup designs have ignited plenty of internet fury in recent years

Starbucks’ rather plain 2015 holiday cups ignited a political firestorm
Starbucks

Starbucks devotees get awfully excited about the chain’s annual unveiling of its holiday cups — but in recent years, not everyone has been so cheerful about it. The chain first introduced holiday cups in 1997, annually featuring Christmas-y designs such as reindeer and ornaments, and managing to remain scandal-free for nearly two decades.

In 2015, however, the tumultuous political climate of an America on the verge of electing Donald Trump to the presidency gave way to Starbucks’ first holiday cup debacle — and each year since, it seems the coffee giant manages to piss people off with its seasonal cup offerings, despite its best efforts.

Here now, a brief timeline of Starbucks’ holiday cup controversies, from 2015 to the present day:

2015

Starbucks

Starbucks rolls out a new holiday cup that’s decidedly more subdued than years past: a rather plain, red ombre design, which the company explains is intended to “usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories” (aka be more inclusive). This doesn’t sit well with some, including an internet evangelist by the name of Joshua Feuerstein. In a video that quickly goes viral, Feuerstein — clad in a Jesus t-shirt and clutching a handgun — rails against the coffee chain for trying “to take Christ and Christmas off of their...cups,” and encourages people to “prank” Starbucks by telling baristas their name is “Merry Christmas” so they’ll have to write it on their cup and call it out when the drink is ready.

Feuerstein’s screed and the resulting internet fury leads Donald Trump to weigh in on the controversy, telling supporters at a rally that the Starbucks cups were evidence of the “war on Christmas.”

2016

Starbucks

Following the 2015 debacle, Starbucks foregoes red cups altogether, instead going with a green cup featuring “a mosaic of more than a hundred people, drawn in one continuous stroke” — “a symbol of unity,” founder Howard Schultz explained. Somewhat predictably, this cup design leads to a swift backlash from a very vocal group of conservatives, with some claiming the cups are an attack on Christian values. Detractors take to Twitter to accuse the company of “political brainwashing” and spreading “liberal bias.”

2017

Starbucks

Starbucks brings back the red holiday cup, this time with a more holiday-esque design that features snowflakes, wrapped presents, and a pair of holding hands. Though the gender of said hands cannot be seen on the cup, Buzzfeed suggests the depiction is “totally gay” —leading conservative media outlets like Fox News and the Blaze to accuse the chain of pushing a gay agenda. Starbucks doesn’t confirm one way or the other, telling the New York Times, “We intentionally designed the cup so our customers can interpret it in their own way…”

2018

Starbucks

In a clear attempt to avoid the controversies of years past, Starbucks unveils four new holiday cup designs that are decidedly, if somewhat subtly, Christmas-y: a red and white stripe design reminiscent of candy canes; a white cup with a holly-esque pattern in mint green and red; a red and white houndstooth motif; and a “stargyle” design featuring twinkling stars on a dark green background. The more festive cup designs seem to satisfy Christmas crusaders of years gone by, and no Twitter firestorm erupts following their unveiling.

However, Starbucks won’t emerge from this holiday season entirely unscathed: This year it also rolls out a plain red, reusable holiday cup, which is given out for free on Friday, November 2 to customers who order a holiday drink. (Customers can then bring the cup back and get 50 cents off future holiday drinks.) But supplies are apparently very, very limited, leading to some stores running out within minutes of opening on Friday, and upset fans take to Twitter to in droves to voice their displeasure. Those who missed out on the free cups can now purchase one for $2.50, however.

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