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Depending on when you start counting, the American tradition of Thanksgiving is celebrating its 400th birthday this year. If you had to explain the Thursday holiday to a visiting anthropologist from Proxima Centauri, you might not find it easy.

Thanksgiving is explicitly designed to express gratitude to a deity who, according to our laws, cannot be presumed to exist — at least, not presumed by the government.

And if the alien observer conducted a survey of public opinion, he/she/they would get an earful (assuming the presence of ears) of different ideas about the holiday's origins. Did it start with the Pilgrims' three-day feast in 1621? Or George Washington's proclamation in 1789? Or Abraham Lincoln's establishment of the official holiday in 1863?

And what does football have to do with it?

One needn't be an extraterrestrial to be perplexed. Some components of the traditional Thanksgiving observance are head-scratchers (assuming heads).

For starters, we can no longer claim consensus — and probably shouldn't have claimed it, at least not since the First Amendment became law in 1791 — that we are a religious nation, or that we share any sort of common ideas about the nature of God.

True, our currency asserts that we trust in God, and our political leaders invoke God on a daily basis. Before he was president, Ronald Reagan went so far as to say he believed "that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage."

That vision is what used to be known as Manifest Destiny, now rightly discredited. Maybe the people Reagan talked about loved freedom, but they were selective about who should get to enjoy it. Slavery has been a part of this country's heritage since the beginning. And when he praised those who "sought out" this continent, he was excluding people who had been here for many thousands of years before the Pilgrims, before Columbus, before even the Vikings.

We live in a time when many of our country's old conceits are at long last being called into question. Some of the early founders and explorers are losing their honored places in our national memory. Statues are coming down. And the holidays those figures inspired — Columbus Day, for example — are being reimagined or amended to show respect for those who were so long left out of the American promise.

Thanksgiving, too, has come in for some rethinking. Some modern Wampanoag, whose ancestors helped the Pilgrims survive their first, harsh winter, now observe the holiday as a national day of mourning. Certainly, Thanksgiving is a legitimate candidate for reform, but we hope it survives that reform more or less intact.

The act of giving thanks is an expression of humility, a character trait we could use more of. Thanksgiving brings us face to face with an unsettling truth: that the bounty we enjoy is not ours by right. It comes to us through hard work or providence, grace or accident, but not because we are somehow better than those who have less. Especially this year, when the pandemic has cost so many so much.

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday involving sometimes awkward family time, near-compulsory overeating, troubling historical roots and anxious anticipation of the starting gun for Black Friday shoppers. But it also gives us a chance to suspend our perpetual political knife fights long enough to agree that we have much to be grateful for.

To whom we express that gratitude, or whether we express any at all, is up to us — and that's another reason to give thanks.