From Starbucks cups outrage to the Bud Light boycott: The "War on Christmas" is now waged year-round

This isn't the first time beverage design has triggered conservatives

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 3, 2023 1:30PM (EST)

A Starbucks Holiday Cup & A Can Of Bud Light (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
A Starbucks Holiday Cup & A Can Of Bud Light (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Nearly two decades ago, during a December 2004 segment of “The O’Reilly Factor,” viewers were informed that Christmas was under siege in America. “All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” host Bill O’Reilly grimly intoned. 

He listed off evidence: A Denver holiday parade had banned religious floats; some public schools were no longer permitting the display of Christian Christmas symbols; Macy’s had done away with the greeting “Merry Christmas” in their marketing materials and, just down the street from their flagship location, then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg had unveiled the city’s “holiday tree.” 

The argument was laden with evangelical fear mongering that became more and more overt. For instance, in his 2005 book, “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought,” John Gibson put it like this: “The Christians are coming to retake their place in the public square, and the most natural battleground in this war is Christmas.” 

However, the most climactic fight in the War on Christmas wouldn’t take place in the traditional battlegrounds of local politics, like municipal parade planning committee meetings or contentious PTA debates. Instead, conservatives ultimately took the fight to their nearest Starbucks, and in doing so, laid the groundwork for the party’s contemporary boycott strategy, seen applied most recently to Bud Light

Since 1997, Starbucks has served coffee in winter-themed disposable cups throughout the holiday season. The first design was composed of jewel-toned swirls dotted with hand-drawn holly sprigs and coffee beans. Two years later, the company unveiled cups in an eye-catching Santa suit red and the color became the winter standard moving forward. Throughout the years, those red cups were decorated with a number of designs, which were seasonal, but never overtly religious: snowmen, carolers, skaters, mittens, deer, doves and snowflakes. 

However, that didn’t stop conservatives from taking umbrage with the 2015 cup, described by the company as featuring a “two-toned ombré design, with a bright poppy color on top that morphed into a darker cranberry below.” The minimal design left space for customers to “usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” This attempt at corporate inclusivity was interpreted by some conservative public figures, including  internet evangelist by the name of Joshua Feuerstein, as an affront to Christianity. 

“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,” reported Eater’s Whitney Filloon and Brenna Houck

The way the internet operated in 2015 was vastly different than when Bill O’Reilly had originally declared that Christmas was under attack in 2004; Fuerstein’s message caught fire, and it caught fire quickly and with enough intensity that then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump promptly used it as fodder for a campaign speech in Springfield, Illinois. 

“I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks?"

“I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. That’s the end of that lease, but who cares?” Trump told the crowd. “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, that I can tell you. That I can tell you.”

This year’s Bud Light boycott bears some striking similarities to the Starbucks controversy, which is perhaps why it feels like the current “culture war” is just the War on Christmas, simply repackaged and then waged all year long. 

Central to both “wars” is an argument from conservatives that their way of living is under attack and that — despite the fact that many are comfortable advocating for policies that deny the personhood of some truly marginalized populations, like immigrants or members of the LGBTQ community — they are at risk of becoming oppressed. Whether this is an argument rooted in genuine fear or is bald-faced political fodder (or both) likely depends on who is giving it at the time, which also means that it can be grafted to whatever the hot-button issue of the time is. 

In discussing the War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly cast a wide net of social concerns: “Secular progressives realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition. But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility. That’s what happened in Canada.”

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In the case of the Bud Light boycott, the issue at play was a bit more specific. After the company partnered with transgender influencer and activist Dylan Mulvaney on a short series of social media posts, conservatives accused the company of pandering to liberal customers, which is apparently tantamount to delivering a blow in the culture wars. Fox News ran a story that included comments from commentators pushing back against the alleged "gender propaganda," including John Cardillo. 

"Who the hell at @budlight thought it was a good idea to make a grown man who dresses like little girls their new spokesperson?" Cardillo asked on X, formerly Twitter. "Brands have to stop listening to their woke creative teams and get in touch with their consumer demographics."

There’s a certain sense that, for conservatives, really anything can become evidence of the culture war; it’s interesting to consider, for instance, how small the scope of Bud Light’s partnership with Mulvaney really was. In addition to posting a sponsored Instagram photo, Mulvaney posted on her Instagram story that the company had sent her a single commemorative can with her face on it to celebrate Day 365 of her transition. 

As reporter Miles Klee noted in Rolling Stone, this was a single can of beer featuring Mulvaney's likeness that "didn't even appear on the grid." In fact, "you had to look at her Instagram stories to see it."

"Apart from stumbling across this online ad, your typical Bud drinker would never know of such an endorsement," Klee added. However, as any good Sunday School teacher or politician knows, object lessons are an easy way to illustrate a point, and thus, Bud Light became a symbol of conservative oppression, just like Starbucks’ innocuous red coffee cups.

The current “culture war” is just the War on Christmas, simply repackaged and then waged all year long.

That said, the Bud Light boycott is distinct in a few notable ways. While both controversies benefited from consistent media attention, there was more direct political pressure applied to Bud Light as a company, like when in mid-May, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn opened a Senate investigation into Anheuser-Busch's partnership with Mulvaney. And while the Starbucks controversy had a distinctly seasonal quality, the Bud Light boycott stretched out for months and months — even while some of the brand’s most outspoken detractors, including singer Kid Rock, quietly went back to both drinking and serving the brand. 

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that our current social media landscape, which thrives in times of potent division, continued to help the narrative consistently regenerate. A strengthening “alternative economy” of specifically conservative-facing products, like Ultra-Right Beer, which was founded with a mission of “fighting the communists” who want to see the Capitol insurrectionists prosecuted, was born out of that same political fissure. 

This can’t all be attributed to fear, of course. So much of these escalating, drawn-out boycotts is driven by escalating levels of hate. This is proven out by data that shows that physical attacks on transgender individuals are on the rise. 

According to a new report from the Human Rights Campaign, 33 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed by violence in the United States since last year's Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, 2022. Twenty-six of those people were killed in 2023. 

"The epidemic of violence against transgender and gender-nonconforming people is a national tragedy and a national embarrassment," said Kelly Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations. "Each of the lives taken is the result of a society that demeans and devalues anyone who dares challenge the gender binary."

That’s why while seemingly anything — from a coffee cup to a beer can — can become a rallying symbol of the right’s amorphous and largely one-sided culture war, it’s still truly marginalized Americans who tend to remain its victims. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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