Not for me the classic Miracle on 34th Street or any of the newer Christmas movies, sentimental things that get added to yearly, with a new hit every decade or so.  I will watch It’s a Wonderful Life occasionally – but more for the populist politics than the feel-good message.

No, my ritual Christmas movie is The Lion in Winter. It is authentically set and costumed, beautifully photographed,  richly scored, and deals with the timeless theme of a family Christmas.

The gargoyles, nearly but disconcertingly not quite familiar people and animals,  and the martial medieval chant of the opening take us back to a different culture, but the themes are eternal.

Regis regum rectissimi
prope est dies domini,
dies irae et vindictae,
tenebrarum et nebulae
diesque mirabilium
tonitruorum fortium,
dies quoque angustiae,
maeroris ac tristitiae.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . Day of the king most righteous,
The day is nigh at hand,
The day of wrath and vengeance,
And darkness on the land.
Day of thick clouds and voices,
Of mighty thundering,
A day of narrow anguish
And bitter sorrowing.

It is 1183. Henry II’s heir, who had already been crowned king, has died that summer of dysentery in a war of rebellion against his father. Henry summonses his surviving sons and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his exiled queen, to a Christmas court at Chinon Castle in France.


Eleanor wraps and labels presents while she and Henry reprise a lifetime of passionate kingdom building, love, rivalry, and disappointment in each other. Their sons intrigue in various combinations with their mother and young King Philip of France. It is a story about royalty, but about every family ever. As in every holiday gathering, the assembled family plays out the desire to build a legacy and to have one’s children carry on, disappointment in parenting, and sibling rivalry.  Eleanor and Henry despair of each other, and of their children.

The intrigues went on after that Christmas.  Son Geoffrey was trampled to death in a tournament in 1186.  Henry died at Chinon in 1189, after Richard, John, and their mother, aided by Philip of France, joined to overthrow him.  Eleanor lived on as dowager Queen through Richard’s reign and most of John’s.  Her daughters became queens and her surviving sons kings.

For some reason my children do not feel the same way I do about watching The Lion in Winter.   We watched it Sunday night, so they will not have to put up with it next week.

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