Family, friends, food, feasting! Thanksgiving with its colonial garb — pilgrims, farmers and corn-bearing American Indians — is often viewed as the most American of holidays. But its roots grow back earlier and deeper than the Mayflower, and the values it celebrates are among the oldest humanity knows.

Thanksgiving is a harvest feast, America’s celebration of a tradition that is probably nearly as old as human settlement and farming. The focus on foods, recipes and home cooking is significant. December’s holiday table may be set with lamb or ham, roast beef or Christmas goose. Late November is the time for turkey and stuffing, potatoes and gravy, corn and cranberry sauce.

It is also, probably more than any other modern American holiday, a celebration of family. And it is not modern America’s narrow nuclear family that is exalted, but the traditional, multi-generational extended family. Thanksgiving dinner is not just mom, dad and the kids sitting down, but a gathering at grandma’s, with aunts, uncles and cousins coming together at one table, under one roof, to cook and talk, bicker and laugh, eat, drink and be family.

The great meal isn’t the gift of one overworked cook, but a collaboration. The kitchen is the shared domain most often of mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts but many men add their efforts as well. In the gathering and working together the traditional recipes -- stuffing as your grandmother made it, old Aunt Gwenifred’s apple pie — get handed down and new ones are introduced. And in the bustle of the kitchen and the day’s feasting comes the talk: family stories are born and shared, retold and embellished, tales of people’s gifts and quirks, humiliations and triumphs — an amalgam of human qualities that make them just who they are, the people their families love, flaws and all.

Thanksgiving — as we idealize it, Thanksgiving as it should be — is the harvest feast of tradition, alive and thriving as a gathering that celebrates family, bringing together the different generations, drawing home far flung wanderers, bridging foolish divides that too often separate people.

Thanksgiving’s mythology — woodland natives and Pilgrims from across the sea at their shared table, fear and mistrust set aside — is cherished not as history but as symbolism. America’s first Thanksgiving feast acts out who we want to be: one big family, with everyone included, everyone bringing their contribution to the table, everyone sharing the work and enjoying the feast.