THANKSGIVING celebrates bounty, which is not quite the same thing as prosperity. Bounty means generosity and is the opposite of greed. The originators of the holiday were acknowledging the providential bounty that sustained them in a strange and wild place, eastern Massachusetts. From this century's perspective it seems poignant that those settlers should have given heartfelt thanks as they confronted a New England winter with nothing more than they had been able to scratch out of their stony fields and store in their small barns. Their idea of a plentiful sufficiency seems, to their present descendants, an exceedingly meager and dangerous standard of living.

But Thanksgiving, like the people who invented it, never considered semi-starvation to be a virtue, or bare-bones survival preferable to a more expansive diet. Thanksgiving reflects a spirit that considers a second helping to be positively conducive to a generous state of mind, suitable for considering the welfare of the community. That spirit encourages buying a large turkey rather than a small one, on the grounds that as you lug it into the house it will occur to you that it is really too much for one family and you will be encouraged to think of relatives, friends and neighbors who might be added to the celebration. Putting marshmallows on the squash may strike you as imprudent as a matter of waistline, but the inventors of Thanksgiving would not have found them at all objectionable on moral grounds. Marshmallows, they would have said, also represent bounty and are a token in a small way of a larger benefit. The pie issue is more complicated, but it is generally best settled in favor of two -- or perhaps three. Some people genuinely do not like pumpkin pie, while others do not feel that they can risk mince.

Not a light meal, you will observe, particularly for a population increasingly inclined to salads for lunch. It's a reminder that American traditions have been set by people who did a great deal more heavy physical labor than most of their present descendants do. The best way to deal with dinner is to take a long walk afterward. By the time you get home the evening will have turned chilly; you may feel an impulse to walk down to the basement and give an affectionate pat to the furnace. Because of it, unlike those settlers in 17th century Massachusetts, you won't have to spend the winter chopping wood. It is not correct to claim, as some philosophers do, that not chopping wood makes the present generation less virtuous than previous ones. But it certainly gives you much more latitude in deciding how to spend your time and energy over the next four months than you would have enjoyed if you had been born 3 1/2 centuries ago. How can you use that freedom from hard labor most usefully? It's worth a few minutes' thought after dinner. The Puritans would have approved of that