In the beginning, there was a paper coffee cup — bright red on top, shading to a darker cranberry below. That much seems beyond doubt.
But the brew-haha of supposed outrage that has spilled from it since the Starbucks coffee chain served up what looked, at first glance, like a seasonal throwaway, is increasingly hard to figure.
A week ago, a self-described evangelist named Joshua Feuerstein, who lives outside Phoenix, posted a video on Facebook criticizing Starbucks for trying to "take Christ and Christmas" out of the holiday by designing cups devoid of seasonal symbols. Ever since, controversy — or, at least, lots and lots of comment — has ricocheted around the Internet, taken as evidence that people were either similarly upset, or upset that others were upset.
Feuerstein's video has garnered millions of views, and has been pronounced by pundits as the latest trope in longstanding complaints by some religious conservatives that American companies, government officials and others are waging a "War on Christmas."
Thousands of voices
Indeed, thousands of people have sounded off on Twitter and other social networks, many appending the "#MerryChristmasStarbucks" meme that Feuerstein coined for what he urged could be a movement to reassert the holiday's rightful spot in the American marketplace.
But few of the voices who have previously decried the ruination of Christmas have joined Feuerstein's call to action — and some question its public support. Many of those commenting about it online express irritation or bemusement that anyone could be angered by a paper cup, despite scant proof that widespread offense was taken.
"If I were a touch more cynical, and maybe I am, I'd think the one who is winning this war is, maybe, Starbucks," said Steve Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the social and cultural consequences of the Internet.
The fact that Feuerstein's video was so widely circulated means "somebody must have agreed" with its message, Ed Stetzer, head of Christian consulting firm LifeWay Research, said in an interview. But Stetzer joined other prominent evangelicals in pointing out that they'd seen little evidence of actual indignation on their own social media feeds.
"We have a better story to tell than one of faux outrage," Stetzer wrote in an opinion piece this week for the Christianity Today website. "So let's tell it. It's not the job of your barista to share the Gospel."
The nature of the Internet makes it hard to gauge how much people agree or disagree with him. The speedy spread of messages online is often less a confirmation of shared sentiment than it is that people find something entertaining, or troubling, or merely worth a look. Likes, shares and views don't really "measure public opinion anymore," Jones said.
That's not to downplay the feeling among some Christians that Christmas, and indeed their faith, is under assault.