December 19, 2011

Making beauty out of cold

"And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." (John 1:5)

In the darkest season of the year, the lights go up.

Every year, Christmas lights go up on houses, trees, shrubs, and lately, all kinds of stands. They go up on my house too, three brilliant sets of LED lights that add up to a mere fifteen watts of power. Some of these displays are massive, some tiny, but nearly all of them are electric reminders of long-ago candles and lamps.

Electric light feels very different from candle light. Even the best electric lights seem frozen in place, or blink and move awkwardly.

I decided this year that I wanted to do something with candles again - something safely outdoors, far from the children and the house, but something beautiful. That brought me back to ice lanterns, something I'd talked about doing years ago.

Ice lanterns are what they sound like, candleholders molded from ice. Eventually I'll figure out how to make my own molds, but to get started I ordered three plastic molds. Yes, it's plastic, but it seems to be the right plastic, able to expand a little with the ice, and should last for years. If you have an empty freezer, you can make lots of these, but for my own use I'm just filling them with water and putting them out in the cold.

Making lanterns - molds filled with water, left out to freeze.
Making lanterns - molds filled with water, left out to freeze.

To get these out, you turn them over and fill the center hole with warm water. It's more easily done inside where the warmer temperature helps melt the outside edges too. The lantern drops out of the mold and it's ready to go.

Imperfect lanterns - but they'll work.
Imperfect lanterns - but they'll work.

(I tried removing these outside and wound up using too much warm water, creating a much bigger hole in the middle.)

The hole in the middle takes a candle. The instructions recommended against the metal-base tea candles, and even some plastic-base ones I got melted their way through quickly. I got some 10-hour votives instead, without a base. They seem much steadier in there.

Lantern with lit candle.
Lantern with lit candle.

They shine best in the dark, of course, though it's easier to set them up and light them while you can still see.

A single lantern, lighting the dark.
A single lantern, lighting the dark.

Lanterns against the dark.
Lanterns against the dark.

It's hard to tell in a photo, but the effect of the lanterns is very different from the lights on the house.

House, lights, and lanterns.
House, lights, and lanterns.

These lanterns do more than ease the darkness. They give me a reason to look forward to the coldest days. Since I got the molds, I've been looking forward to days where the highs are below freezing, since that's when I can best make and display the lanterns.

So far I've managed to make two batches of three, far from the dozen I'd planned. It looks like I'll have to wait until after Christmas is over to make more, but hopefully the Twelve Days of Christmas (and beyond) will be colder.

Posted by simon at December 19, 2011 7:21 AM in ,
Note on photos


Sarah said:

These are beautiful! Such a lovely idea.

Amber in Albuquerque said:

Yay! They are amazing!

Jim Watters said:

Last Christmas I received a Ice Lantern mold from Lee Valley. I did some of my own experimenting.

I found some of my better results were from using ice cubes with colored water, freezing with layers. The biggest problem of tying to freeze in one go is getting the candle out of the mold. The ice would expand con-caving the center section gripping it very tight.


Steve Poling said:

My brother does this with plastic wastebaskets and cold winter nights. But you must be careful the plastic is flexible enough. (I ruined a nice wastebasket I'd had for years that way.) A few years back we teamed up to buy an igloo maker: a pole with markings and a slip-form to pack snow at just the right angle.

There's been little snow or bitter cold in Michigan so far this winter (jinx!) so we've not yet had any opportunity for igloo construction, but if we do, I'll make sure we add ice lanterns to the project.