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The Uses (and Abuses) of Schmaltz

Above: The Love Song by Norman Rockwell (1926)

The word “Schmaltz” is an intriguing one – and well-worth our meditation, as we venture through the Christmas season, and on at last to St. Valentine’s Day (which is also Ash Wednesday this year), as well as Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays. In the German from which it comes originally, it means any animal fat – sufficiently rendered to use as food or fuel. In Yiddish, it came to mean very specifically goose or chicken fat spreadable on crackers. This – possibly because of its association with the cooking of unassimilated Jewish grandmothers – came to mean soppily or excessively sentimental, and with that meaning, , it entered American English around the Great Depression. Doubtless brought in by the great influx of Jewish artists and entertainers into the mainstream, it was and is used in a derogatory manner toward any bit of art or entertainment that seems, well, soppily or excessively sentimental.

Of course, this is a two-edged sword, because sentiment itself, powerfully entwined with nostalgia, can have its positive as well as negative effect. Advertising, with its need to engage the emotions, often relies powerfully on Schmaltz; and while we decry commercialism and all that, much of the Golden Age of American Illustration (late 19th and early 20th centuries) was built on what we would today call Schmaltz. Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker, and of course Norman Rockwell – surely among our greatest native artists – might all be and have been accused of being purveyors of Schmaltz. So too have some of our outstanding composers of the Great American Songbook – Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, for example. Of course, to be fair, we Americans have been practitioners of Schmaltz long before we had the word.

Indeed, it goes to the very heart of who we are as a people. What, when we separate Christ from Christmas to produce the “Holidays,” we are of course left with Schmaltz. But it would be unwise to simply toss out Santa and the rest as mere “good feelings.” On the one hand, even the secular world is forced to stop and – much as they might try to avoid it – celebrate the Birth of Christ. Yuletide Schmaltz can be a means of evangelisation, as Charles Schultz maintained when insisting on keeping Linus’ recitation of Scripture in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Telling our children the truth about Santa Claus can and should involve our informing them about St. Nicholas – both as historical figure and intercessor.

So too, although for Catholics the Christmas season lingers on until Candlemas, for retail stores almost immediately the Valentine’s Hearts come out. Despite the eponymous Roman martyr’s status, unlike the Christ Child he is in no sense the focus of the Schmaltz that envelops us all on the buildup to this feast of lovers. Indeed, even the “St.” part of the day’s name is often left off, and Schmaltz truly reigns supreme.

But there are other varieties of Schmaltz to be sure, and Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays remind us – with Washington and the Cherry Tree and Honest Abe the Rail-splitter as tokens – that patriotism too depends upon a certain amount of Schmaltz. Mom, Apple Pie, and the Flag were traditionally as great foci of the stuff as the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, and the first Thanksgiving. The American’s Creed and the Pledge of Allegiance might be characterised as Schmaltzy, as might the popular images of such events as Paul Revere’s Ride, Valley Forge, and the Gettysburg Address. Now, to be sure, as with Christmas, all of these events and many more like them were based in hard-edged reality. But generations of children’s school pageants and popular illustrations have softened them to a degree.

Moreover, our unique history has certainly given birth to many regional versions of Schmaltz. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy certainly gave birth to the “moonlight and magnolias” school of Southern Romance, where our brave boys in grey marched off to defend the flower of Southern womanhood, while happy Blacks looked on approvingly. Of course, in time, a sort of reverse Schmaltz was born in the South, wherein the Blacks faced nothing but drudgery, lynching, and the lash, and every slaveowner was Simon Legree – this being the dominant kind of Southern Schmaltz served up today.

There is also Midwestern Schmaltz, of the “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Harvey” variety. The Middle America of ice cream socials, straw hats, country fairs, and Queen Anne Revival houses, of farms and small towns. Everybody knows his neighbour, and no one locks their doors at night. There’s a bandstand and a carrousel in the centre of every town, and corn on the cob and watermelon in a sort of never-ending summer cookout. The Far West has Schmaltz too, from cowboy chuckwagons to Indian teepee, from ranch breakfasts to cattle drives. California has several varieties of it, ranging from Zorro and Ramona-style Mission Revival to the faded glimmer of Old Hollywood. Pueblos and ranchos bring up the Southwestern variety, and Eskimos and hula dancers show that our newest States are well-represented.

But truly, these United States of Schmaltz are centred in the Northeast, and most particularly in New York, where in all likelihood the word first entered the language. There is a particular kind of Schmaltzy reminiscence, which inevitably starts out with, “I’m from the Old Neighbourhood…” Now, depending upon where this imagined paradise lay – and the age of the usually pre-Boomer reminiscer – it was a place where – despite general poverty – no one was aware of being poor; children played on the street at all hours, and the fire hydrants were opened during the summer; despite many ethnic and religious differences, everyone loved and learned from each other; if primarily Catholic, the local pastor was wise and holy, the nuns in school strict but fair; the ethnic foods were delicious and plentiful; one left one’s door unlocked; and on and on. After World War II, these many urban paradises were rapidly deserted for the mad dash to the suburbs.

It is these very suburbs that are the Boomer Schmaltz, where the Golden Ages of Television and Comics and then the Silver Age of the latter kept us entertained. Mom and Dad had more than enough money to maintain a middle-class lifestyle; there were vacations in summer and cookouts on the lawn or the back yard. These were rarely ethnic enclaves, but the same TV and radio shows, magazines, and other media provided a common culture, carefully reinforced in the schools. This was buttressed by the rise of chain stores and restaurants. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League, and much else also helped build the suburban memory, the unique Boomer Schmaltz.

For many older members of my generation, the counterculture of the 60s – itself for many a rebellion against the perceived conformity of the suburbs – is a powerful source of Schmaltz. Films like “Field of Dreams,” “The Big Chill,” and “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” managed to help folks one or two decades older than myself to feel really good about themselves. And that, after all, is a major use for Schmaltz.

As might be guessed, Schmaltz can play a very big role in religion – and Jews, Protestants, and Catholics all may claim their fair share. For the Jews, of course, memories of Seder suppers and Shabbat night dinners at Bubbe’s (Granny’s) are perhaps the epicentre of this sort of activity. Protestants, depending upon the particular variety and level of liturgical use, have theirs, ranging from “good old fashioned altar calls” at Tent Meetings to the flowers and music at Easter Sunrise Services.

With us Catholics, however, there are two streams of it. The one is of course pre-Vatican II, and memories of Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” and Fulton Sheen are closely bound up with those of May Crownings, First Communions, and ethnic activities ranging from St. Joseph’s Table for the Italians to St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish. In fact, Ireland’s Galway Cathedral, with its mosaic of Patrick Pearse on one side and John F. Kennedy on the other praying to a risen Christ really is a monument in stone to this variety of Schmaltz. Certainly, one of the leading practitioners of this sort is New York’s own Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Whiskey in hand, his smiling visage at the Al Smith Dinner or the Ancient Order of Hibernians is always enough to get this writer wanting to sing “Sidewalks of New York” at the top of his voice. But as is often the case with practitioners of Schmaltz, there is another side to him. His Eminence of New York is always on the winning side in any dispute within the Church, and the cheery grin should not obscure the keenly political mind it conceals.

There is of course a post-Vatican II version of Schmaltz in the Church as well, common to elderly laity and clergy alike. This is akin to that of the counterculture – and often involves the same people. It looks back to the guitar and folk Masses of the late 1960s; to nuns dropping their habits in a search for relevance; to conforming to the general loosening of standards in general – and dubbing it all “the work of the spirit.” These sorts of people are dominant in the Church today, and are often quite sure that their version of Schmaltz is simply objective reality. They will go to any lengths to impose their rosy view of their own past upon the rest of us.

Now don’t get me wrong; I am as much a lover of Schmaltz as anyone who doesn’t think the here and now is the best of all possible worlds. But Schmaltz is a means to an end, not an end in itself. As with nostalgia in general, it renders fuzzy the sharp edges that made the past – albeit in different ways – as difficult as the present is. This in turn makes life more pleasant. But it should never be mistaken for objective reality or made an end in itself. We may miss aspects of the Old Neighbourhood – but there are reasons why everyone was in such a hurry to leave. We may look back fondly at the suburbs of our childhood – but the counterculture did not jump out of a duffle bag. The counterculture itself was very colourful and had some great music. But it left behind a horrible legacy of ruined lives spanning several generations.

So too with Catholic Schmaltz. On the one hand, the pre-Vatican II Church with its lovely rituals morphed into the post-Vatican II Church – which in turn led with its works and pomps into several non-catechised and so lost generations. That loss – and the continuing losses from children who are basically taught that “Confirmation is Graduation from Church,” and from so many others who are mistaught the Church’s dogmas at every level – does not bother the “Susans from the Parish Council,” nevermind their pet clerics. They are convinced that if they can just impose the thought of 1968 brutally enough, a new springtime will emerge. There is no delusion like self-delusion, and no fools like old fools.

Traditionalist Schmaltz, however, has nothing like the strength it had in my youth – simply because most who were middle-aged in my youth are either very old or very dead. Instead, you have young people, without any nostalgia for times they did not know, rediscovering the Church’s traditional liturgy on their own – and evaluating it on its own terms, rather than through nostalgic or Schmaltz-filled eyes. They are discovering on their own its particular rhythms, and find them to be spiritually fulfilling in a way that transcends intellectual discourse. Indeed, it is from their ranks that the calls come to “restore the ’54,” because the liturgical creations of experts cannot do for them what the organic development brought about by the lived experience of generations of believers does.

Indeed, considering the fanfare with which Pius XII brought in the rites of 1955, and all the Schmaltz surrounding the memory of “Good Pope John,” were nostalgia all there was to it, one would think that the 1954 Rites are truly gone beyond recall. But they resonate to something far more real than Schmaltz or nostalgia in general. In time, when the current purveyors of weaponized Schmaltz in the Church have gone to their reward, this reality shall reassert itself. I hope I live to see it.

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