Every year before Starbucks unveils its new holiday cup, the exact design is a mystery, but customers can almost always assume the foundation to be firetruck red. This wasn’t always the case — when the first-ever holiday cup debuted in 1997, it was actually grapey purple. Illustrator Sandy Nelson, who was with Starbucks Creative Studio for 14 years, recalls the day her design was chosen.
“It was August, and I had just started with the company,” Nelson told Starbucks Newsroom. “We were working on holiday creative for the season to come. We had what felt like a hundred cup designs pinned up on the wall. Then Howard [Schultz] came by, looked at all of them, and picked my design. I couldn’t believe mine was chosen.”
Swirls and hand-drawn holly leaves cascaded down the cup’s exterior. It also came in sapphire, emerald, and amethyst. Nelson got to see her creation come to life when she saw it in-store on a visit to Anchorage.
“I remember seeing the cups piled high on the counter, and I realized ‘this is big,’” she said. “It was thrilling.”
It wouldn’t be for two more years that the cup adopted its signature red. In 1999, Starbucks creators settled on a vibrant shade of “candy apple” red with drawings of snowflakes, stockings, and other images that “evoked the spirit of the holiday.”
Starbucks’ red cups are a modern-day holiday fixture. People are so passionate about them that their designs often cause controversy. In 2015, people accused the company of participating in the “War on Christmas” because the cup’s canvas was plain red. But when the cups are too festive, many are quick to say that the chain is promoting one December holiday over the others. This year’s design features a pair of hands holding coffee, connected by swirling ribbons and cheerful holiday scenes with splashes of red and green. Most of the space is white — meant for patrons to color the cup however they’d like.
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