It was already promising to be one of the most challenging Christmas Days of modern times, but the last-minute change in relaxation rules announced by Boris Johnson on Saturday to curb a new “mutant” strain of coronavirus has made things even harder.
The five day period allowing three households to gather has been cut to just Christmas Day itself nationally, while in London and the south-east almost 18 million people have been placed under Tier 4 rules - banning them from the leaving the region and limiting them to meeting just one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
It all means millions of families have been forced to tear up their Christmas plans.
Under the new Tier 4 rules non-essential shops – as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers – also have to stay shut.
At a No 10 news conference on Saturday, Mr Johnson said he was taking the actions with a “heavy heart”, but the scientific evidence – suggesting the new strain was up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original variant – had left him with no choice.
“Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives,” he said.
“Yes Christmas this year will be different, very different. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their lives, so that we can see them at future Christmases.”
Boxing Day has become associated in recent years with keen shoppers rushing out to grab bargains as sales begin – but there will be less choice for consumers this year as a growing number of companies opt to remain closed as a thank you to staff.
Among the big names to confirm they will be shut this Boxing Day are Waitrose, Asda, Aldi, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.
Wickes, Home Bargains and Poundland have also made the same decision.
Last month, Paddy Lillis, general secretary of shopworkers’ union Usdaw, said closures were needed to give the key workers a proper opportunity to have a break over the festive period after an incredibly challenging year.
“For key workers, who have done so much this year, asking for shops to close on Boxing Day, so that they can have some quality time with their families, is really not too much to ask for,” he said.
The BBC will show a live Premier League game on Boxing Day for the first time.
It will broadcast Aston Villa’s game against Crystal Palace at 3pm.
Other games will be shown on Sky Sports, BT Sport or Amazon as most matches continue behind closed doors.
Stargazers could spot a bright light in the sky days before Christmas, similar to that which is said to have led the three wise men to the nativity scene.
Saturn and Jupiter will come the closest they have done in hundreds of years on Monday, creating what researcher Professor Michael Burton describes as a “spectacular event in the sky” on Monday – which also happens to be the winter solstice.
While conjunctions – where objects appear very close to each other in the sky – are not rare, this will be an “exceptionally close” one – the closest since 1623.
The two biggest planets in the solar system will be just 0.1 degrees apart, one-fifth the diameter of the full moon, and appear together as the brightest object in the sky, the director of the longest-running astronomical observatory in the British Isles said.
Prof Burton said: “When that happened it was in the daytime skies so people would not have seen it because it would have been too light.
“The last one which actually would have been well placed to be seen was 1226, so we’re going back 800 years to the last one which would have been up in the dark sky to be seen.”
The astronomer, of Armagh Planetarium and Observatory in Northern Ireland, said a conjunction is one possibility for what has become known as the Christmas Star from the story of Jesus’ birth.
He said: “Certainly one of the possibilities might have been two of the planets coming together.
“The whole question of what might the Christmas star have been is a very interesting question in its own right.
“Whether it was a conjunction, whether it was a comet, whether it was a supernova. No-one actually knows what it was.”
The advice to keen stargazers is to look to the south west as soon as possible after sunset, with the best time between 4.30pm and 6pm, and while a telescope or binoculars will help, the phenomenon will be visible to the naked eye, weather permitting.
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