Thanksgiving is a peculiarly American holiday. Celebrating plenty is common; officially and reverently giving thanks is not so common.

Like many American traditions, Thanksgiving is loaded with myths and half-truths.

Harvest days of thanksgiving were common in the New England colonies in the 1700s. But it wasn't until the 1840s that the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was put forward as an embodiment of the Thanksgiving spirit. And it wasn't until the 1900s that the idea of harmony between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants became a big part of the story.

The story of Plymouth Colony does include valid lessons that the romanticized versions miss or glide over. The storybook version is that the Pilgrims, religious separatists who believed the Church of England was corrupt and out of touch, came to America to establish an outpost of purity in 1620. The first winter was hard and half the colonists died. But the survivors worked hard and learned new farming techniques from the natives, and the harvest of 1621 was bountiful. So a day of Thanksgiving was called and the Indians were invited to share in the bounty.

The real story is much more interesting.

According to a journal kept by the colony's governor, William Bradford, in 1621 and 1622 the harvest was far from bountiful, and "this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort."

The main reason for their problems, the governor and elders decided, was that they had required that "all profits & benefits that are got by trade, working, fishing, or any other means" be placed in the common stock, and "all such persons as are of this colony, are to have their meat, drink, apparel, and all provisions out of the common stock." In Plymouth it led to near-starvation.

After 1622, as Bradford put it, "they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop." After much debate, each family was assigned a parcel of land, told it could use it as it saw fit, and trade whatever was produced freely. "This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any other means the Governor or any other could use."

In 1624 the colony was able to begin exporting corn.

Thanksgiving, then, could be seen as an early demonstration on this continent of the benefits of private property and a free market.

Whatever lessons are drawn from those early years, Thanksgiving in modern America is mainly about family. We hope you have yours about you and have much to be thankful for today.

A version of this editorial first appeared on Thanksgiving Day, 2000.