Writer Alice Tarbuck poses against a blue-grey wall. She is positioned to the left of the image and looks upwards to the left with a smile. She wears a red coat and flowery blouse and has short brown hair.

Humanist Society interview series: a very Pagan Solstice with writer Alice Tarbuck

December 18, 2023

At Humanist Society Scotland we believe in learning from diverse belief systems in a spirit of empathy and secularism. We also know that for many of our members, winter solstice is a really important event in the festive calendar, perhaps even more so than Christmas. So we spoke to the Scottish writer Alice Tarbuck, an expert on Pagan ritual and celebration, about what this time of year means to her. Merry Yule!

Thanks for speaking with Humanist Society Scotland Alice! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m Alice Tarbuck. I am a writer and literature professional and I have an ongoing academic practice. I am also a practising witch and have written A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic, published by Hodder and Stoughton. The book explores the history and contemporary practice of witchcraft through a year of essays.

What does winter solstice mean to you?

The Winter Solstice, or Yule, is celebrated on 21 December. It marks the year’s longest continuous period of darkness in the Western hemisphere, the shortest day and the longest night. The word “solstice” comes from Latin. Owing to the sun appearing to “stand still” in the sky, it was called solstitium, which can be broken down into sol (meaning “sun”) and sistere (meaning “to stand still”).

Some Pagans think of the Yule solstice as the period when the sun ‘dies’ and then gloriously returns, promising light to the world again. This period of death is often marked by continuous flames – candles or bonfires – which burn through the night to coax the sun back to life.

Some Pagans think of the Yule solstice as the period when the sun “dies” and then gloriously returns, promising light to the world again. This period of death is often marked by continuous flames – candles or bonfires – which burn through the night to coax the sun back to life. Additionally, celebrations which defy the darkness – storytelling, feasting, fun – are used to protect the world from the winter cold.

For me and my family, Yule is when we celebrate our major winter festival, rather than Christmas on the 25th. We ensure there is a kissing bough, greenery brought into the house to remind us that life continues throughout this coldest and darkest period. There is delicious food and drink, to guard against winter’s privation, and we exchange gifts. We also try to go into our local natural spaces, to make offerings (always biodegradable), to give thanks to the earth and its seasons. Watching the sunrise is not half so difficult in Scotland for the Yule solstice as it is for the Summer solstice. You can comfortably rise around seven to watch the sun’s glorious rebirth on the 22nd.

To me, Paganism means observing a spiritual practice – I would not quite call it religious – which attends primarily to seasons, has a strong element of animism, understands our stewardship in relation to the earth, and has a pantheistic element.

Our Yule likely looks like a traditional Christmas, and why not! But rather than attending Church, or having a nativity, we ensure our altar reflects this time of year, trimmed with holly and beautiful festive colours.

What does Paganism mean to you?

Paganism is a slippery term, with historic and contemporary echoes which often have little in common despite their shared name. However, to me it means observing a spiritual practice – I would not quite call it religious – which attends primarily to seasons, has a strong element of animism, understands our stewardship in relation to the earth, and has a pantheistic element. This allows me to communicate with those concepts which for centuries humans have given faces, such as Death, Harvest, Love, The Home, Luck. These are all such extraordinarily complex ideas and for me they are best represented and embodied by deities.

Any ritual practice which links us closely with our planet generates an attitude of care which is really required in our current climate emergency.

What are your thoughts about traditional Christian ceremonies at christmas?

I am a huge Christmas fan! I sang in Emmanuel Chapel Choir for four years at Cambridge, and there isn’t a carol I don’t enjoy. The more medieval and austere, the better. Adam Lay YBounden is a particular favourite. Christmas, too, celebrates light and life and the joy of our connected existence. Whilst I, like many others, sometimes wish there was less consumerism and less Mariah Carey, I am deeply fond of traditions that link us to histories of celebration.

What can humanists learn or take from pre-Christian and Pagan rituals and ceremonies?

I think humanists – and indeed everyone – can cultivate closer relationships with darkness, stillness, introspection – through Yule celebrations. Additionally, I think that any ritual practice which links us closely with our planet generates an attitude of care which is really required in our current climate emergency. There is a freedom, too, in Paganism – one can take what one feels resonance with and leave the rest. There is no barrier to entry in terms of belief. Whether you are just celebrating the extraordinary cosmic reality which is our seasons and the way we receive light from the Sun, or praying to particular deities, you can identify as a Pagan. There is no test and no membership . Incorporating what feels good into your life is key.

The more-than-human world is at the centre of Pagan practice, something that I think humanism shares in its best manifestations. Pagans also seek dignity of practice and identity without imposing their practices as ‘true’ or ‘superior’.

Do you think there is affinity between the Pagan sense of the world and the secular, atheist, or agnostic worldview of humanists? 

I think some forms of Paganism have affinity with humanism whilst others are very different. It’s a broad spectrum. The more-than-human world is at the centre of Pagan practice, something that I think humanism shares in its best manifestations. Pagans also seek dignity of practice and identity without imposing their practices as “true” or “superior.” We are not, perhaps, so interested in rationality – there is much of the mystic and extraordinary to be found in Paganism – but then there is much of the extraordinary to be found in the world, which goes on producing the miraculous, from fungal networks to solstices. May we all be open to learning from one another, and to celebrating human and nature-based connections in this, the lull time of the year.

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