Just like the fairylights that go up on the Christmas tree get entangled in one another, so do the memories of family and Christmas over the years. There is something about the approaching countdown to the big day that makes one search for nostalgic warmth in those memories. For queer folx especially, it can be a time of revisiting the loss and pain that comes from not feeling seen or welcomed in the home you grew up in. Quite a few people from the community can also feel triggered this time of year by religious and/or childhood trauma. However, the definitions of ‘family’ are as abundant and unique as the literal snowflakes which feature in everyone’s imagination the moment there is any mention of Christmas. So many of us grow up loving the trope of ‘found family’ in literature and films, seeking to belong and have roots in a place where we’re finally understood. For those of us who have been lucky enough to foster healthy relationships and equations that allow us to feel familial love outside our biological family trees, Christmas can also be a time for starting new traditions.
Whether it is hanging Pride ornaments on your Christmas tree or having a Found Family dinner, Christmas can be a time when you reclaim your space at the dining table and your right to joy and the spirit of celebration. A particularly fun tradition is watching Christmas movies while counting down to the big day. Unfortunately, most old and new movies revolving around the holiday exist in heteronormative universes where women are one-dimensional beings who hate the festival, but eventually come around. While recent movies like ‘Single All The Way’ and ‘Happiest Season’ have claimed space for queer identities within these red and green universes, the surface-y nature of the genre can be off-putting for people who are looking for more depth and emotion. This is perhaps the frame that Carol fits perfectly, being at once an instant classic and a nuanced exploration of emotions. While the lyrical nature of the romance between Carol and Therese is written and talked about quite a lot, familial relationships are definitely something that is also thematically and beautifully explored in the film.
Carol and Therese meet for the first time when Carol is purchasing a gift for her daughter for Christmas. The scene of Therese standing in her red Santa hat lives rent free in most of our heads – thanks to the immediate spark of chemistry between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – and establishes the significance of Rindy’s existence in their story. It is the love that Carol has for her daughter which takes her into that store, and it is that very same love which makes her decide to stay away from Therese when her husband threatens to take Rindy away if she continues to see Therese. This threat of familial loss is one that, unfortunately, a lot of queer people know too well. Having to choose between being true to yourself and having the warmth of familial love in your life should never be something that people need to worry about. The magic of the film is when Carol realises that she cannot possibly be a good mother to her daughter without being honest and present for herself, and feeling comfortable in her own identity.
The film also addresses the fact that Rindy’s father is clearly manipulative and has systematically worked to remove support systems from his wife’s life. For a lot of us, this fear or memory of emotional isolation can become heightened over family-oriented holidays like Christmas. Watching Sarah Paulson’s character have Carol’s back is a super cathartic experience. Carol beautifully traces the emotional intimacy between these two exes and highlights how the familial bond has stayed between them, even when the romantic possibilities have ended. It is a beautiful portrayal of a Found Family born from a lost love. Through the two women’s conversations with and about each other, we get a glimpse of their resolve to be there for each other. It also highlights the importance of fostering healthy bonds that are nurturing in nature. Of course, as a film which primarily focuses on romance, it also works to use the setting of Christmas to bring the two protagonists closer to each other. And through the evolution of their romance, we get a glimpse into the family that you find in your partner. While we see Christmas trees, snow, and a Christmas themed colour pallete in the first half of the film, we also see Carol and Therese navigate through the kinds of situations that reflect the queer experience of navigating through the world.
It is a movie that has the potential to make you feel seen as you watch it, and that’s why it’s a great movie to turn to if you’re looking to add something to your personal watchlist, your date night film choice, or your Found Family tradition night for Christmas. The holiday season can bring memories of feeling like we have been left out in the cold for quite a few of us. Sometimes – just sometimes – the reminder that we are not alone and that our chosen family is just as valid and full of love is the long-awaited Christmas hug we all need. The kind that helps you open the doors of your home to the possibility of cheer, celebration, and happiness.