Of Starbucks, Love, and Anonymous Christmas Cheer

Christmas cheer isn't about corporate market share. It's about extending the peace of Christ to family, friends and total strangers.

(photo: Ernst Vikne, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Christmas Eve was the time when everybody was unselfish.
— Laura Ingalls Wilder

If you flip open your Wall Street Journal today, you’ll find a full page Starbucks ad on the back of section A. It features a pair of hands making a heart shape to complete a holiday “WE (heart) YOU” greeting. If I’m not mistaken, what Starbucks is trying to communicate to WSJ readers is that they love us, and they back it up with a smarmy invitation to accept a free espresso drink at their random Pop-Up Cheer Parties “daily through January 2.”

Sorry, Starbucks. In the words of my kids, I’m not feeling it.

To begin with, you don’t know me – how can you love me? You’re a big corporate entity, and although you have legal status as a person, you’re not really a person – a person that can help me get through chemo, or listen patiently as I vent about a dead-end job, or come to my aid when the house is flooded. You can’t make sacrifices, that is, on my behalf – and don’t tell me that all those espresso drinks you’re giving away are a sacrifice! You know as well as I do that your marketing department is well within their budget on this, and that you furthermore expect to reap all kinds of add-on business when those millennials drop by for their free cappuccinos – not to mention all the publicity, good vibes, and increased customer loyalty.

You don’t mention Christmas anywhere in the ad, but the red color (with a splash of Starbucks green at the bottom) clearly pull at the yuletide heartstrings. Also, the word “cheer” comes into play several times, plus “ring in” and “celebrate.” Sure, those terms are also associated with New Years, and your promotion does run through January 2, so there’s that. But, c’mon, we know what you’re up to here, and we appreciate that you don’t want to get dragged down into sectarian hassles (wink, wink). After all, this is about directing more business to your franchises, not the ACLU.

With regards to business, don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge you your lucre, even at Christmas…I mean, even during the holiday season. You are a business, after all, and business (at least since any of us can remember) has always been about making as much money as possible – which, in your case, involves pushing overpriced coffee product. And we love it! We buy your steaming cups for $2, $3, heck, $5 or more a pop without complaint! It’s the free market and consumer choice at work – we could all get 7-Eleven mug refills for a buck if we wanted – and it’s one of the reasons we actually have some cheer this cold, cold time of year. That is, we don’t have to queue to buy essentials like flour and oil like they do in some countries, and, instead, we have the luxury to spend money on fancy caffeinated beverages – which, by the by, indirectly provides employment to your workers who prepare it for us.

That’s the other funny thing about your ad. You may (heart) us – that is, “you” being the marketing and managerial big-wigs in your lofty corner offices somewhere in Manhattan or wherever – but I doubt all your frontline staff share your enthusiasm. For them, working at Starbucks is a job first and foremost. Once they punch the clock, they’re focused on the tasks assigned them: taking orders, handling money, brewing java, dishing it up per customer orders. Yes, yes, they’re supposed to smile and treat us all courteously, but no one is under any illusion that they wouldn’t prefer to be just about anywhere else. Is that Christmas love, I ask you? Is that holiday (heart)?!

No, of course not, silly Starbucks. But what is?

To get at an answer, let’s consider a question my kids passed along from some social media thingamajig the other day. “What’s your favorite version of “A Christmas Carol?” my daughter asked, looking up from her gizmo.

Muppets, of course,” said Joan, and everybody else chimed in with an opinion. I imagine they all expected me to put forward the 1951 classic starring Alistair Sim – but I surprised them.

“I think the Mr. Magoo version is my favorite,” I said, tearing up. Here’s why.

Many, many moons ago, I used to watch the 1980s cop drama Hill Street Blues on a regular basis. One of my favorite episodes is called “Santaclaustrophobia” (1982), wherein the cast, dressed in elf and reindeer outfits, chases down some bah-humbug crooks. I won’t take the time here to explain the whys and hows (you can check it out for yourself), but let me draw your attention to the ending which includes a most poignant Christmas Carol associated scene.

Mick Belker, a tough, no-nonsense Hill Street detective, is returning home that Christmas Eve after the day’s chaos. He takes off his coat and gun, turns on the TV, and settles in for a solitary evening. As he sets out a Christmas card in the window and prepares his supper, you hear the Hallelujah Chorus trumpeting from the television.

By the time Belker is sitting down to eat, the TV has switched to the 1962 animated special starring Mr. Magoo as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The nearsighted tycoon (voiced by Jim Backus) is reacting to the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Belker chuckles to himself – and then the phone rings. Belker scowls – who could be calling? He’s Jewish after all, and not likely to receive well wishes on Christmas Eve. “Hello?” he asks, picking up the phone, and after a pause, “No, I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.”

Then, after another pause, a small moment of accidental grace – an anonymous expression of good will and humanity; a mysterious act of nameless love: “Well, merry Christmas to you, too,” Belker tells his caller. “Bye.”

That’s what Christmas cheer is really all about, Starbucks. Not giving away coffee drinks with hoopla and full-page ads in hopes of ever-mounting market share. It’s about people putting gold coins in Salvation Army tubs; it’s about drivers pulling over to help elderly pedestrians navigate treacherously icy walkways; it’s about total strangers, religion notwithstanding, giving and receiving the season’s ethos. “Like a brightly lighted Christmas tree, Christianity dispels a lot of darkness,” writes Rabbi Michael Gotlieb in today’s WSJ – just a couple pages before the Starbucks ad. “In its glow, it challenges Christians and non-Christians alike to consider that which is transcendent, eternal and greater than us all.”

“Merry Christmas indeed,” the Rabbi concludes, in concert with Detective Belker – and Scrooge as well for that matter. It’s a greeting that packs a lot of (heart).