Of all the things to set off this year’s supposed War on Christmas kerfuffle: Starbucks stripped its seasonal cups of . . . snowflakes.
For one media-savvy evangelist, this was somehow proof that the global coffee conglomerate must “hate Jesus.” A public Facebook post from Joshua Feuerstein denouncing the aesthetic shift was shared more than a half-million times and received a hearty amen from GOP firebrand Donald Trump, who called for a boycott.
Over . . . snowflakes? In the long-standing tradition of seasonal outrage, there are the usual suspects — a nativity scene displayed outside a government building, a Christmas tree in a public courthouse, icons with clear ties to the religious holiday. Snowflakes, we thought, were the safest, most inclusive, anodyne holiday symbols of all. How could their absence be a rebuke to the Son of God?
In the interest of clarity, we called on Chad Pecknold, an associate professor of theology at Catholic University with expertise in religion and culture, to see which seasonal iconography has any actual religious significance. We present them on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 as “totally secular” and 10 as “peak Christian.”
Santa Claus: 9/10
The current-day Santa may be a semi-secularized character, but he “derives from Saint Nicholas, an early church saint famous for giving gifts to children, and being the patron saint of children,” Pecknold says. Think of the North Pole as a metaphor for heaven, the place to which we send our hopes and wishes. Mr. Claus pretty clearly represents the Christian holiday.
Maximum Christian. “It is at Christmas that we celebrate the angelic announcement of Christ being born, and so the angels are very much a Christian symbol,” Pecknold says. It’s probably safe to say that angels won’t be appearing on Starbucks cups anytime soon.
Christmas trees: 9/10
The name says it all, really. But the idea of an evergreen festooned with decorations originated as a Bavarian church tradition, Pecknold says: “There’s nothing genuinely universal about it as a Christian symbol.” Many non-Christians put up trees now, so “at some point, the symbol doesn’t just belong to Christianity anymore.” Still, perhaps an image to avoid on the cards you send your friends who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, etc.
Context is everything. In nighttime winter scenes, stars may just be stars. But add a manger and three wise men, and that’s the star of Bethlehem, Pecknold says — very Christian. “The star of Bethlehem is the origin for all of the Christian hymns around Christmas,” he says. “It is, of course, the star that leads the Magi, who are not Christian, they are not Jews, they’re just men of learning who follow a star. . . . The star represents a kind of recognition that non-Christians might come to find the Messiah.”
The only reason a snowman gets a “1” is because — and Pecknold admits this is a reach — “there’s a sense in which Christianity is all about raising up the human person, because everything in creation is elevated by the human image,” he says. “So you could say . . . isn’t making a snowman just that? Out of this snow that falls, put it into something like a human form?” He laughs. “But who knows.” Otherwise: Frosty is fairly secular.
Holly and berries: 6/10
A bit complicated: Holly and other seasonal greenery, like wreaths, were originally linked to pagan winter solstice festivities but later took on Christian meanings: Prickly leaves symbolizing the crown of thorns Jesus wore during his crucifixion, berries the color of his blood. “Here, in the heart of winter, the plants produce these red berries, coinciding with the birth of Christ,” Pecknold says. So, either pagan or Christian — dealer’s choice.
Nativity scene: 10/10
Slam dunk: It’s a scene depicting the birth of Jesus. Its origins lie in the old French and German tradition of performances dramatizing Christ’s birth, Pecknold says. “Nowadays, we still see the scenes, just not necessarily as part of a play.”
Bows/wrapped gifts: 7/10
Pretty Christmasy, especially if the colors involved are red and green. “There has always been a gift-giving element to Christmas,” Pecknold says, although the idea of “many, many presents” is a modern, commercialized twist. But because Christmas observers aren’t the only gift-exchangers around this time of year, context and coloration are key.
More religious than you think, Pecknold says: “Bells are always used in Catholic churches to alert the faithful to the presence of Christ — they’re used in Mass, and I suspect that the use of bells at Christmas was originally derived from the liturgy itself.”
Gingerbread houses: 4/10
Gingerbread houses are definitely associated with Christmas in modern-day celebrations (and originally date to 16th-century Germany, according to PBS), but “I can’t think of any explicit Christian connection to it,” Pecknold says. “It’s not a custom that you can immediately recognize as having a strong Christian connection.” So go on and break out the frosting and gumdrops, non-Christians!
Seems like a safely secular image, being a naturally occurring bird and such, but nope: “Doves are strongly associated with the holy spirit, which of course is how Christ is divine — the union of the holy spirit with Mary’s humanity,” Pecknold says. “So I would definitely put doves more in the Christian category.” Sorry, bird-loving atheists.
Snowflakes aren’t Christian. They’re just snowflakes. If you’re looking for a secular, purely seasonal symbol, snowflakes are a winner. “It’s just a non-Christian symbol that is still festive,” Pecknold says.
Red and green: 10/10
As in, the colors of the new, stripped-down Starbucks holiday cup? As Christmasy as it gets! “Colors have an enormous significance in Christian history and Christian liturgy,” Pecknold says. “Red in the church is always associated with Christ’s sacrifice — it’s always associated with the blood of Christ.” As for green, he adds, it may not have a strong liturgical connection, “but we certainly do associate it with Christmas trees.” As for Starbucks, he adds: “I like the cup! That’s a classy cup.”