The lifting of restrictions on indoor gatherings extended to some households across the UK follows months of stringent regulations over daily life to stem the spread of the virus.
However scientists and politicians have urged caution for those meeting loved ones amid fears it could cause a significant spike in cases of Covid-19 as numbers continue to rise.
At one Leeds care home dozens of residents were able to embrace their loved ones thanks to a trial of rapid result testing.
Aspen Hill Village in Hunslet, south Leeds, hosted more than 70 close-contact family visits on Christmas morning after lateral flow tests were used to check for signs of the virus.
Michael McKimm, who was able to see his grandmother, Rose McKimm, for the first time since February, said: “It was fantastic, it pretty much made Christmas for me just to see her, it was great.
“It was very emotional for my mum, she cried a lot.”
Those in care have faced some of the longest periods away from family members this year due to the risks posed by the coronavirus – with a University of Manchester study from November placing the number of total excess deaths in homes from April to August this year at 29,400.
Navjot Singh, director at Aspen Hill Village, said: “This year has been difficult for the whole country, but for those people living in care homes, or with loved ones in care homes, it has been even more so.
“For some of our residents, it’s been over nine months since they’ve been able to hold hands, or have a hug, with their loved ones.”
She added:“For our staff, who have tried their best to make life as normal as possible for the people they care for, it represents a bit of hope that our residents will have more normality in 2021.”
In England a planned nationwide pause in the rules for five days was reduced to just Christmas Day itself, while the introduction of tier 4 restrictions on London and parts of the southeast saw many forced to cancel plans to meet with loved ones.
Earlier this month Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, warned a spike in cases in the US following celebrations there should serve as a warning to those in the UK, telling the BBC: “If you look at what’s happened in the States in terms of Thanksgiving, another national festival where people traditionally gather together and families come together, what you’ve seen is a real rapid increase in both cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”
In an address to the public on Christmas Eve, Boris Johnson said he sympathised with the difficulty of separation, but urged the public to remain vigilant.
“In most years it’s a moment for togetherness and celebration in which the generations are jumbled together in the same household for days on end, pulling crackers and snogging under the mistletoe, you name it”, he said.
“And yet this year that is the one type of Christmas we simply cannot afford to have.”
Meanwhile Scotland introduced a strict travel ban between itself and the rest of the UK, with stringent nationwide measures due to come into force on Boxing Day.
Wales also reigned in its rules to allow only two households to meet. For the day. In Northern Ireland three households were allowed to gather, but the public were urged only to travel for essential purposes over the following six weeks.