THIS year Christmas has not been the same for my family. There was one person missing from our dinner table. My brother, who died tragically last February, brought his own brand of humour to our annual Christmas Day gathering at my parents’ house.

We all marvelled as to how he always worked out the answers of the jokes inside crackers, and then made up his own - which were even better.

Getting into the spirit of the season, he would dance with his nieces and nephew in front of Wii consoles, something I shied completely away from, and come up with the most thought-provoking clues in charades.

He would trick my daughters into thinking that he had bought them a small, bizarre gift like a packet of chewing gum, which always turned out to be something far more lavish - something he knew they wanted but we parents had dismissed as far too expensive.

As an uncle, he spoiled them, and my sister’s son, rotten.

His presents were always just what we needed - we knew he would replenish our stocks of wine and bird food for the next few months, all beautifully gift wrapped.

This year, none of that happened, and Christmas was the worse for it. Things seemed incomplete.

Across the country, thousands of families spent a sad Christmas without precious family members. New research by a UK-based counselling training service has found that more than half of us - 55 per cent - did not look forward to the festive season, with 17 per cent citing the reason as having to face it after the death of a loved one.

Families members who are no longer with us are missed at all times of the year, but perhaps we feel their loss more keenly at Christmas, when traditionally everyone comes together.

Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, there were dinner tables in homes across the world, decked with festive fare, candles and crackers, but missing vital, much-loved human components.

My sister and I are lucky to have both parents still living, still relatively healthy, and able to share Christmas with us, and we have our own children to help lift our spirits.

But it wasn’t easy without my brother.

When I think back to Christmases past, we have lost many relatives with whom we used to share the occasion. For many years we spent Christmas Day with my grandparents, a great aunt and great uncle.

My great aunt always insisted on total silence when watching the Queen’s speech on television, taking it very seriously, while we children sat in an adjacent room stifling giggles. My great uncle would ask me and my brother about school and exam results, things teenagers never want to talk about, especially at Christmas, but looking back I see that he was clearly just trying to make conversation with what was to him an alien species.

On Boxing Day, my vivacious nan would arrive, bringing along her handbag full of practical jokes. She howled with laughter when we tried to drink from the fake brandy glass or eat the plastic chocolate bar. She had a small toy pig that did something revolting when you lit its rear end with a match. We children loved all this and looked forward to it.

It is the same in households across the country. Different relatives, different festive traditions.

Our grandparents, great aunts, uncles and family friends were part of our Christmases for decades; they filled our house and made it memorable. All are missed.

Some people die at Christmas, making the time of year even more difficult - a poignant reminder for relatives and friends.

The best we can do is enjoy Christmas as much as possible - as those we have lost would want us to - and take pleasure in remembering them.