My grandmother on my mother's side died a week before Christmas 28 years ago. It was not sudden, but it was still a shock. I loved her dearly, as she did me. Hers was the first death that really hit me hard. My parents, my brothers and I, along with my mother's brother and father, sat in my parents' living room, decorated for Christmas, and reminisced about her. I still think about her each year as the holiday draws near, and miss her.

Now, almost 30 years later, there are others who are missing: my mother's father, uncles, friends, my own parents. A host of the dead crowds my imagination as I remember Christmases past; all the warmth, fun and love of those gatherings still lives within me.

There was my father's wonderful gay uncle who wore a shaggy blond wig and rolled up his pants legs during a game of Reynolds charades (it bears only a passing resemblance to the real thing). He was a sophisticated, urbane man who cooked like a chef, spoke French like a native and played bridge like a pro. But he was also gentle and modest and funny. He was very kind to me when I was in the midst of my coming-out confusion.

My mother's parents were always there, benign givers of gifts and applauders of my and my brothers' youthful achievements. My grandfather told a good story; my grandmother cooked a mean turkey. And she wrote the nicest thank-you notes, always making me feel like she was really talking to me, not just filling up the notepaper, the way I did as a kid.

We would set up the Nativity set, with the wise men, the sheep and camels, and of course Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in the manger. And we'd decorate the tree. There were usually a few new ornaments to go along with the heirlooms from Mom and Dad's childhood trees.

After my brothers and I left home, Mom stopped having a live tree – too much mess, she said. Instead she had a stylized tree three feet high in wrought iron on which she hung bird ornaments. It was lovely, and I came to love it because it was so her.

I remember my mother's Christmas cookies – she made chocolate-covered peanut butter logs with dates in them and a wonderful flat, crunchy cookie that had dried fruit in it and was cut in rectangular strips. Those were best dunked in tea.

Food was plentiful and scrumptious at my parents' during the holidays, but the thing I associate most strongly with those times is music. My mother would play the piano, and whoever else was there would gather around and sing carols.

My dad, who fantasized about being on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, would sing different parts in different registers – he did the page in “Good King Wenceslas” as a treble and the king as a baritone – and he and my mother would race each other to see who could finish “The Twelve Days of Christmas” first. Dad and I would sing harmony on “Joy to the World,” one of the easier carols to harmonize, and I had learned the words to the first verse of “Torches Here, Jeanette Isabella” in high school French.

More than anything, those times around the piano evoke the holidays for me, the love and joy and belonging of being with family. More than anything, that is what I miss when I think of the absent ones.

And yet they are not absent at all. There are with me in memories, in ornaments, traditions, food and carols. Their wonderful love abides with me always.

Love, the unreserved gift of oneself: that is the birth of the Savior in our hearts, that is the gift and the blessing of Christmas.