It is a part of America's religious heritage that we have a holiday dedicated to giving thanks. Though it traces its origins back to the Pilgrims' harvest banquet in 1621, the holiday was officially proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and was not fixed on the fourth Thursday in November until 1939 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, according to the History Channel website, History.com.

But the very fact that we have such a holiday, and that its origin is one of our country's founding myths, says something about what we think it means to be an American. It means, for one thing, that we are not entirely self-sufficient individuals. The classic tale of The First Thanksgiving tells us the Pilgrims suffered terribly during the harsh winter of 1620, and would not have had enough food come the next year's harvest, were it not for Squanto and other Native Americans, who taught them to grow corn and other native plants, and to find other local sources of food.

The first harvest was the occasion of an inter-ethnic feast, where Europeans and their aborigine friends shared food and fellowship. For all the austerity of their religion, the Pilgrims knew they owed their survival to the Native Americans, as much as to God. They were grateful to both, and they showed it. And still today, many of us see Thanksgiving as a day to remember blessings, and to bless others.

So gratitude is one of our country's founding virtues. It comes from the same root as grace: the Latin word gratus. To be grateful is to realize that, whatever my personal talents, good fortune or diligence, I do not live solely by my own efforts. We all depend on the work and the generosity of others, and they on us. Gratitude has a healthy element of humility that reminds me of my need for others and our debt to them, even to generations long gone.

Thanksgiving is also about resourcefulness, about using what is at hand – not the crops and game of a land an ocean away, but those right in front of us – and living in right relationship with the rest of creation. The earth yields its goodness only so long as we tend and steward it well.

In recent decades, the holiday has become bound up with parades, football, Christmas commercialism and overeating. These trappings of materialism and selfishness enable you and me to substitute the false comfort of consumption for actual connection. But these are mere accretions, not the real meaning of Thanksgiving. And in spite of the ways the holiday has been co-opted, it is still, for most of us, profoundly about gratitude, family and sharing.

It is a welcome tonic to pride, egoism and partisanship. I am thankful for that.