Jay Parini: Starbucks dropping reindeer and ornaments from holiday cups -- is misguided nonsense
He says such holiday symbols rooted in ancient rituals, not Christmas. Why strip even these mythic images, erase meaning from life?
Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of “Jesus: The Human Face of God.” His newest book is “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Starbucks has announced that it will remove all signs of Christmas from its cups this coming holiday season, offering a cup that, the company said, is a “blank canvas” on which customers can “tell their Christmas stories in their own way.” The company appears to be giving in to some foolish idea about what is politically correct, somehow imagining this will make for a more “inclusive” atmosphere in its coffee shops.
I’m not usually against all the PC stuff that permeates American life: That’s a kind of knee-jerk reaction that annoys me, too. For the most part, I think of PC as meaning Plain Civil. You treat people the way you’d like to be treated yourself, and that means not using language that is demeaning. It means not deriding folks who are different from you. It means paying attention to the language you use, not allowing stereotypes to control your thinking.
But the PC movement can get easily out of whack these days, and it has reached a fairly absurd level with Starbucks, which has removed even the most secular symbols of the holiday season, including reindeer and tree ornaments, from its paper cups. The company thinks that by getting rid of the offensive reindeer, they will somehow foster a “culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.”
This is over the top, and has provoked the usual response from a handful of Christians egged on by Joshua Feuerstein, who describes himself on his website as an “American evangelist, internet and social media personality.” He posted a video to Facebook railing against the Starbucks campaign to erase Christmas, thus launching a hashtag and provoking a flurry of media attention.
The truth is that Christmas has become largely a secular holiday, one most often represented by Rudolf with his bright red nose, reindeer, and green or red ornaments hanging on pine trees that have nothing to do with Christianity, and indeed hark back to a variety of ancient myths, including ones that invoke pagan and Norse traditions. It’s downright nutty to think that reindeer and ornaments exclude anyone.
In a small way, these secular representations of the Christmas holiday are simply a reminder that the season has shifted, that we’ve come to the darkest point in the year in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice. This means that while the daylight hours have decreased, the sun will now begin to grow large once again. It’s a time of hope for the New Year and its promise of things to come, including brighter and longer days.
It’s an old idea, without any religious connotations. The Roman holiday of Sol Invictus marked the renewal of the light, often characterized as the “birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” and the date for this celebration was December 25. It wasn’t until quite late – in the fourth century – that Christmas was celebrated to mark the birth of Jesus.
The fact is, we need markers in life, whether we subscribe to a religion or not. And the major holidays, such as Christmas, serve to remind us of the turning world. The pagan agricultural seasons that underpin many of the rituals and symbols of both Christmas and Easter, formed a kind of grid against which ancient people lived their lives and noted major passages.
Starbucks plans to serve us our hot drinks in a simple red cup, allowing us to “welcome all of our stories,” as the company put it on its website. But Christmas is a story that has both religious and pagan origins, and to ignore its power is to ignore the power of myth – those symbols and legends that help us to ground our lives.
I write this as a Christian who feels no need to thrust my own faith upon anyone else. Political correctness has its place – we don’t want to impose our beliefs (and especially our prejudices) on anyone else. People need to have and feel good about their own stories.
But this attempt to peel away even the secular side of Christmas – to strip all texture and mythic potential from contemporary life – seems beyond absurd, perhaps even dangerous, as it points in the direction of total blankness, a life lived without depth, without meaning.