OPINION: We used to wish people a merry Christmas and a happy new year, writes Joe Bennett.
Remember that? Astonishing, isn't it? Reckless, even.
Fortunately society has moved on since then. I've got three Christmas cards in front of me that illustrate how.
They are from friends who have taken the trouble in this season of goodwill to remind me that I matter to them. I am grateful for their thoughtfulness, touched by their love. There's one from a motoring organisation, another from a power company and one from the post office. All three, bless them, have wished me a safe Christmas.
The old formula made no mention of safety. In this most perilous of seasons, it suggested we should try to be jolly. It implied that there was more to Christmas than mere survival. What innocent fools we were.
But now we have grown up. And what we have grown up to understand is that this is a big and nasty world. At every street corner lounges a great white shark of danger, smoking, its hat pulled down, its collar pulled up, fingering its gat and awaiting its opportunity to get us.
The great white sharks include terrorism, recession, peak oil, paedophiles, global warming, paedophiles warmed by global warming, crop disease, lung disease, any disease, potting mix, obesity, ladders, superbugs, quadruple horsemen apocalyptic and Christmas crackers for dogs.
The Christmas cracker for my dog was a gift from a bookstore in one of the nicer suburbs. As you would expect from such a source it's a traditional English cracker that goes by the name of Tom Smith. I know this because it says so in capital letters, just above the words Made in China.
The essence of a Christmas cracker is a pair of tiny surprises. The first is that you know there's a gift inside but you don't know what it is. This little surprise induces merriment.
So a modern cracker does away with it. It tells you on the packet what the gift is.
"This cracker," it says, "contains a squeaky bone." And it adds, just in case the dog is un chien, "ce diabolitin contient un os couineur." And it further adds, just in case the chien is illiterate, a picture of the squeaky bone. Here's a cracker that takes no risks.
The second surprise of a cracker is the bang. Again you know it's coming but you don't know when. This causes the people pulling the cracker to lean away and screw up their faces and then, when the bang does come, they laugh. More merriment, in other words, so that's gone, too.
"The snap has been excluded to ensure this product is animal friendly," it says. "There will be no bang." (Again it is translated into French, but there is no picture of an explosion, perhaps for fear of alarming the illiterate dog.)
So here we have a cracker for our times, surprise-free, emasculated and as safe as one could wish. So is it time to haul it from its wrapper, decorated with a cartoon dog that resembles a cross between a reindeer and a dalmatian, and wave one end at the mongrel to induce a bit of Christmas heave-ho? No it is not. There's a warning, or rather a WARNING.
"This cracker is designed to be pulled by adults," it says. "Do not give to your pet."
In other words it's a cracker for dogs that dogs are not allowed. Very wise. It might make the dog happy.
Lacking another adult, I lugged the cracker down to the garage in order to stick one end in the vice.
As I went I read the rest of the WARNING.
"The bone is a plaything for your dog, not a toy for children."
I have no children, but who was to say that the power company or other close friends might not pop round for a visit and bring their children? I hesitated. The dog looked up at me, puzzled.
"The bone is strong but is not indestructible, and your pet should be supervised while playing with the item. Please check item regularly for damage. if damaged please dispose of immediately."
I looked at the dog. The dog looked at me. I thought a bit and then I binned the cracker.
"Sorry, chien," I said, "but there were just too many risks. Now huddle up close to me and do nothing, and let's see if we can have as safe a festive season as our friends wished us and then if we succeed we can huddle together for another one next year."
The dog, poor mutt, looked disappointed.
» Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.
- The Southland Times
Are you offended by the sight of sportspeople spitting on the field?Related story: Editorial: Not-so-great expectorations