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For queer women, the holidays will always be 'Carol Season'

The 2015 film “Carol” has become a seasonal must-watch and a lesbian classic, inspiring endless sapphic memes and themed events.
Rooney Mara, left, and Cate Blanchett in "Carol".
Rooney Mara, left, and Cate Blanchett in "Carol." Wilson Webb / Weinstein Company/ Everett Collection

Seven decades ago, Carol Aird and Therese Belivet went on a second date. The year was 1952, Dec. 21 was a Sunday, and a light snow began to fall. They stopped to buy a Christmas tree in suburban New Jersey, and Therese took Carol’s photo. By their next date — in true lesbian fashion — the photo was on Therese’s wall. 

“It’s perfect,” Carol said, upon seeing her image prominently featured in Therese’s apartment.

And so goes the slow burn of a forbidden love, captured on-screen in the 2015 film “Carol,” with Oscar winner Cate Blanchett in the titular role and Rooney Mara as Therese, the ingénue. 

The film earned six Academy Award nominations and the enduring adoration of queer women the world over, who have dubbed Dec. 21 “Carol Day,” and the holiday season “Carol Season.” 

One of the best ways to celebrate? Memes.

“For some of us, the holidays are an isolating time. We’re not in touch with family, or out to our family, and a film like ‘Carol’ is a way to seek community, online or in person,” said the anonymous administrator behind the popular Instagram account Godimsuchadyke, which supplies its nearly 170,000 followers with a healthy dose of sapphic memes and “Carol Season”-themed merchandise. “It’s a way for us to celebrate the holiday season in a way we haven’t had the opportunity to do, and do it on a massive and grand scale.” 

Plus, she said, celebrating “Carol” is fun. “We can do some hyperbole and make it silly. I did something recently with Sarah Paulson as your emotional support ex.” (Paulson played Carol’s best friend and former lover, Abby Gerhard, in the 2015 film.)

The film “Carol” was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt.” In the film, Carol, a wealthy married woman living in the suburbs, first encounters Therese, a young photographer making ends meet by working at a New York City department store, while Carol is Christmas shopping for her young daughter.

Highsmith based the novel, which was originally written under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” off her time working as a seasonal employee at Bloomingdale’s during the 1948 holiday season. In an ironic twist, the author got the job to pay for psychoanalysis, something she started as a way to process how distraught she was over her sexuality.

This was the era of McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare, a period of intense homophobia where the prevailing thought was that homosexuality was something to be arrested for or cured of. Highsmith was briefly engaged to a man when she was in her 20s, just like Therese, but she spent most of her life in relationships and having affairs with women.

It was at Bloomingdale’s in early December that Highsmith sold a doll to Mrs. E. R. Senn, the wife of a wealthy New Jersey businessman. Highsmith described Senn in her diaries as “an intelligent looking woman! I want to send her a Christmas card, and am planning what I’ll write on it.”

Highsmith went home and sketched out an early outline for what would become “The Price of Salt,” initially titling it “The Bloomingdale Story” (which, for super fans, can be read here).

Shivangi Mittal, the administrator behind the popular Instagram account Lesbian Cinema, said in an email to NBC News that watching “Carol” is an annual holiday tradition. 

“‘Carol’ is stylish, tender, and bold. From [a] story perspective, I think the screenplay and the dialogues are intricate and brilliant … there is the perfect amount of love, drama and character payoff,” she said. “Before ‘Carol,’ I used to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) because of course, it’s a classic that makes you believe in magic, angels, life, and humans, without falling into overtly cheesy sentimentality. ‘Carol’ is that magic for the sapphic community.”

Watching “Carol” has also been a holiday tradition for Kaina Dominguez, the founder of The Bush Films, a queer film festival with screenings throughout the year. This year, she is hosting her first “Carol” screening in New York, followed by a dance party.

“I’m a person who loves traditions,” Dominguez said. “I don’t have family here, and I can’t do the traditions I used to do when I was living in Venezuela. There can be a lack this time of year, and I fulfill it by having something that I can do that doesn’t depend on someone else.” 

Dominguez said that “Carol” is the only queer-inclusive holiday film that resonates with her, as she doesn’t gravitate toward rom-coms and said there’s an absence of LGBTQ representation — especially when it comes to queer women — in the holiday film genre. A screening of “Carol,” she said, is important. 

“I am thinking I should host this every year,” she said. “As a Bush Films tradition, and not just my tradition.” 

Though “Carol” was released relatively recently, Godimsuchadyke said that to have a queer-centered film of this caliber is unique in and of itself. 

“It’s funny that we’re calling it a classic. It’s seven years old,” she said. “That speaks to how endearing and enduring it is.”

The film has not only inspired countless memes, but there’s also a short film called “Carol Support Group,” which is about a 12-step meeting of people addicted to the film. The short premiered at the 2017 Frameline festival, an annual LGBTQ film showcase in San Francisco. 

Queer women-centered site Autostraddle once had a “30 Days of Carol” event, where it posted 30 articles about “Carol” in as many days, and one of its writers also watched “Carol” on a 24-hour endless loop

New York’s Metrograph, a theater that focuses on rare archival screenings and special premieres, screens “Carol” every year, a tradition since 2016. The film is shown in 35mm and includes Q&As with people who were involved in the making of “Carol”: This year there’s one with cinematographer Ed Lachman on Dec. 23 and another with production designer Judy Becker on Christmas Day. 

Alexander Olch, founder of Metrograph, said that at the first holiday screening in 2016, Lachman went into the projection booth to make a slight adjustment on the color temperature of the film. 

“That kind of attention to detail — something the audience would not notice with their eyes, as much as feel with their hearts — is the beauty of filmmaking at the highest level,” Olch said in an email to NBC News. “The craft of making ‘Carol’ and Ed’s presentations of it here at Metrograph have become ongoing emotional masterclasses for our community.”

Highsmith published “The Price of Salt” under a pseudonym, not wanting to be known as a “lesbian writer.” But the writer Margaret Talbot speculated in The New Yorker that it’s also possible that Highsmith, a writer of thrillers like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train,” was also uncomfortable with the book’s “exaltation of love,” writing that it’s the only novel of Highsmith’s in which no violent crime appears.

The joyful ending of “Carol” was unheard of at the time, when stories of queer protagonists often ended in death, a trope alive and well today (link contains a spoiler for “Killing Eve”). 

The most common question about “Carol” that Mittal of Lesbian Cinema gets in her DMs are her followers asking if the film has a happy ending. 

“This is a real [point of] fear and anger in the community. After Xena dying, Tara & Lexa being shot by a stray bullet, and countless other character deaths, the sapphic community is tired of the ‘bury your gays‘ trope,” Mittal wrote. “Since ‘Carol’ is set in the ‘50s, we were skeptical if the movie would have a happy ending or not, because it has happened before when the filmmakers have changed the book’s happy ending to a sad one in the film or replaced the ‘women lovers’ with ‘best friends.’ It is not a piece of old news, it is still happening. And then there is ‘Carol,’ braving the tsunamis of ‘business/industry requirements’ and telling the tale of love with sensitivity and honesty.”