A number of years ago I was in the middle of a rehearsal with a clarinetist when he turned to me: “Where are you with your Thanksgiving preparations?”

The question startled me. It was the week before Thanksgiving. There were no “preparations” happening at my house. In fact, it had never occurred to me that a week before the holiday I should be doing anything special at all.

Seeing my blank look, Jack said, “You know. Have you boiled your bones for your broth yet? What about baking the pumpkins for the pies? And you need to order flower arrangements for your table this week.”

Clearly this man took Thanksgiving and all its trimmings very seriously.

There is something about the holidays that bring out the rituals in all of us. “Tell me about your Thanksgiving food,” I ask my students. “What does your family eat?” I hear about pumpkin pie and tofu turkey. I get reports on traditions of neighborhood soccer games on Thanksgiving morning and visits to grandparents. I’m not just making idle chitchat as the kids pull out their music and settle down on the piano bench. I’m interested. I’m endlessly curious not only about what we might eat on the fourth Thursday in November, but how we might spend our time day after day after day.

My best friend Lora spent last week moving. She texts me photos of paint colors and piles of boxes. She tells me about the carful of old clothes and books she is donating to Goodwill, and about a new dining room set she is thinking about purchasing. She’s painting ceilings and organizing her kitchen. I’m almost envious of the excitement of a new start, a fresh environment to create. Almost.

In 1941 in the days after Thanksgiving, my grandfather wrote my future grandmother a letter:

Dear Grace: 

I’m glad you had such a pleasant Thanksgiving day. Thought of you that day and wondered if you got to spend the day with your family. I too had a pleasant day…After noon an old neighbor who lives and works in K.C. and who was in my class in high school dropped in to see us, his wife and family were visiting her people near here. He insisted that I go ahead and plow and followed me around the field until about 4pm and we talked about all our old friends and classmates, the dogs we both used to own, the big snakes we killed, the groundhogs that we dug out, the owls that we pulled out of the hollow tree, etc. Well it was lot of fun…

Growing up, my grandparents’ farm on Thanksgiving was my favorite place on earth to be. Grandma roasted the turkey overnight in a wood stove in the kitchen, filling the house with its delicious fragrance. My siblings and I would sleep in the lumpy beds upstairs under a heavy pile of quilts a foot thick and wake up to a breakfast of sweet rolls and homemade donuts. There were platters of cookies and peanut brittle everywhere. And pans of roasted peanuts waiting to be shelled and eaten by the handful. It was magical.

As an adult looking back on this wonder, I realize that this magic happened because my grandparents were doing chores, all day every day. They were preparing for our visit weeks in advance. Thanksgiving morning was not a holiday from milking cows and baking rolls. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard reminds us.

Jack had his bone broth. Grandpa had his plowing. Lora has her boxes.

I have my annual morning spent planting tulip and hyacinth and daffodil bulbs, a ritual as sacred to me as any holiday tradition involving turkey. Released from the rigid structure of piano lessons for a few days, I plan lunches and drinks with friends. I have the parade of former students back for the holidays and stopping in for tea and long visits. I have the yearly errand of buying paperwhite bulbs and then placing them in tall glass vases and scattering them around the house. I get out Christmas popup books for the sunroom and strings of dried cranberries for the mantle. I put white star lights around the front door. I make time for evening walks in the neighborhood at dusk, wanting to witness the precious moment when folks are shutting their curtains and lighting candles. I order paper and envelopes for holiday cards. I find myself driven to clean out drawers, wipe down the refrigerator, sweep the dust and debris from under the couch.

People, look east, the time is near

of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able,

trim the hearth and set the table.

Whatever one’s religious tradition, this is the month to celebrate the discipline of practice. To trim trees and sing carols. To sit in darkness and wait for the returning light. To call loved ones and plan visits. To hang wreaths and make soup and re-read favorite books. To force hyacinths and paper whites into flower and to watch Christmas cacti burst into resplendent bloom right before our eyes.

People, look east and sing today:

Love, the Guest, is on the way.