Socially and culturally constructed meanings hold an immense amount of power to reinforce and maintain dominant understandings of everything within that culture. Symbolism plays a vital role in this context as well, since most of what we know our culture to be is accepted and received through learned and practiced beliefs.
Take saying ‘hello’ for example. We have been culturally taught to acknowledge and reply to people who greet us, as a sign of politeness and respect. ‘Hello’ can be communicated with the utterance of the word, a wave of the hand, nodding your head at someone, or perhaps even making eye contact with another person and smiling at them. All but one of these is known only through understanding the different symbols and gestures that connote the word ‘hello’.
This is just an elaborate example of how as a society we understand what something means. These meanings can also be constructed within the religious context, as we can see with this Starbucks Red Cup controversy that has been proliferating social media newsfeeds across North America (or at least my newsfeed).
For the last several years, more than one coffee chain, Starbucks included, comes out with a holiday-themed coffee cup between November and January. Every year the design changes, with last year’s cup being adorned with snowflakes. Similarly, the years preceding this cup included poinsettias, reindeer, snow, and evergreen trees. This year, however, Starbucks has taken a minimalist approach, going with a solid red cup design, with a light to dark red ombré effect, which has been met with outrage by many traditionalists who believe that Christmas should be more evidently represented.
I’ve seen many tweets under the #StarbucksRedCup hashtag with users claiming that the franchise is stirring up a ‘war on Christmas’, that it is anti-Christian, that they are going to boycott the business, that they are stripping the magic out of Christmas in favour of being politically correct, along with other remarks that make you tilt your head, raise one brow, and ask ‘really?’
What these users probably didn’t remember is that all the secular elements of Christmas that we think of as traditional, and family-centric are purely capitalist and consumerist. To make the statement that Starbucks is anti-Christian is quite bold, considering nothing about the holiday cups have ever been remotely close to representing Christian values or beliefs. There was no picture of a Christmas Eve mass, or Jesus building a snowman – it’s always just been “festive” (see photo below).
We have been culturally taught that Christianity and Christmas are inseparable, and that in this context the colours red and white, snow, gifts, and reindeer are somehow symbolic of this religion and have been appropriated by businesses and corporations to capitalize on the Christmas fervor.
As a practicing Christian, I remember being taught that Christmas was about warmth, kindness, selflessness, generosity, and acceptance, and not once did I ever think that because I practice this religion, I suddenly had ownership of these cultural symbols of what Christmas supposedly means. The red cup didn’t cause an existential crisis in me, because my freedom of religion, edification of my religion, and my ability to celebrate my religious holiday never depended on the design on a coffee house’s cup.