Long Island Chef Marc Anthony Bynum makes an aromatic roast...

Long Island Chef Marc Anthony Bynum makes an aromatic roast turkey for Thanksgiving. Credit: Doug Young

My advice to young people never varies: Watch out whom you kiss. This wisdom I learned through experience.

It was 40 years ago. There I was, just a young fellow from Australia on vacation on a Greek island, and a beautiful American girl appeared on a rock beside the sea as if in a vision. "Crikey," I said.

She was wearing a bikini and the sun was shining on the water. So, basically, my fate was sealed. That night, illuminated by a romantic moon, I did not follow my own advice, being not yet aware of it myself.

Some time later and much removed from summer and the Greek isles, I found myself at a strange feast unknown to my culture, and everywhere I looked were her relatives. They were many in number and, remarkably, all looked the same. This was not the life I had imagined back in the old country. So I said "Crikey" again and went for the stuffing.

It was, of course, Thanksgiving, the all-American holiday. In retrospect, it seems such a natural event on this soil that it's easy to forget that the holiday is not indigenous to other lands.

True, Canada has adopted the custom on another date when Canadians give thanks for hockey, red-coated mounted police, moose or whatever they like up there. But they are the exception.

Despite the best efforts of my daughter Allison, who lives north of Sydney and is trying to live my life in reverse, Australia does not celebrate Thanksgiving. The whole ingrate, unthankful rest of the world does not celebrate Thanksgiving. Poor outlanders, they do not know what they are missing.

It simply did not occur to the early settlers in Australia, for example, to set aside a day to give thanks. Many had come as convicts, and between the floggings, deprivation, man-eating sharks, poisonous snakes and spiders, bushfires, drought and floods, the thought of giving thanks somehow didn't pop up.

Yes, the American pilgrims had it hard, too, but they had funny hats to amuse themselves and their great religious faith for the parts of life not susceptible to amusement. In Australia, a country first populated by the criminal classes, religion was a harder sell, as were blessings to be thankful for.

So it was left to Americans to invent Thanksgiving, and that is something all by itself to give thanks for, because Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday. It is the product of American genius, just like the distance between bases on baseball diamonds, perfect to the foot.

Thanksgiving's main rival, Christmas, has a split personality. It is both a Christian celebration and a pagan shopping frenzy. People choose which one they want to celebrate and often mix the two. This leads to ill will in the season of supposed goodwill as each tradition seeks to overpower the other.

Thanksgiving is blessedly free of that. There is no call to put the thanks back into Thanksgiving, no recriminations if someone dares to say "happy holiday," no Fox News "war on Thanksgiving." If the thankfulness of the participants is the product of their faith, they tend to wear their religion lightly. Someone is nominated to say grace while everybody at the table holds hands so that nobody can grab a drumstick early.

Thanksgiving does not have to be promoted with stories of a hearty fat man coming down the chimney, toy-making elves or flying reindeer. There are not 12 nights of Thanksgiving - a relief to the nation's waistline, which is already threatened one eggnog at a time in the weeks ahead.

Blessedly, no gifts are exchanged at Thanksgiving, although increasingly the holiday is the starting point for Christmas shopping. As they used to say at the Indianapolis 500, "Gentlemen, start your engines." As they now say at Thanksgiving, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your purchases." But that is the gravitational pull of commercial Christmas, not the fault of family-centered Thanksgiving.

The holiday falls at the perfect time of the year when the weather can still accommodate some athletic activity, erratic weather from climate change allowing. Touch football games are always popular, enabling players to burn off calories before dinner or else wallop relatives who were not sufficiently welcoming to newcomers in the family.

Thanksgiving is simplicity with trimmings. The basic ingredients are a turkey and a family. Add an eccentric uncle to remind young people to watch whom they kiss and the day is complete. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Readers may email him at rhenry@post-gazette.com.

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