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Alaska Life

Celebrate the return of the light with ice lanterns

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: December 30, 2017
  • Published December 19, 2010

The way light refracts through ice is fascinating. Forget the science -- it's just plain fun to look at. Flickering light, captured inside an ice lantern, adds a warm and distinctive ambiance to any winter setting. And the gentle glow of fire and light cutting through the dark of winter can take the chill out of the coldest days -- at least in spirit.

In Norse mythology, the space where the worlds of fire and ice meet is the place of creation -- a place of light, air and warmth. With the arrival of winter solstice and the sun on its slow return, ice lanterns are an easy and fitting way to welcome brighter days.

The formula is simple: Add water to any mold and set it outside or in the freezer. Five-gallon buckets work well if you like the look of a traditional lantern. If you prefer globes, balloons are the way to go. Start now, and with a few supplies and a little patience, you'll have your own creation ready in time for Christmas or New Year's Eve. The amount of water you're freezing and the air temperature will affect how long it takes to make your lantern. The more science you apply -- tap vs. distilled water, temperature variances, thin vs. thick walls -- the more varied outcomes you can achieve.

Whether you are a perfectionist or simply happy to be experimenting, success will be yours. There will be duds, but the good news is even they are striking in appearance. Cracks, oblong shapes, unusual crystals -- they all add character and catch the light in different ways.

To make your own globe lantern, you'll need a balloon, candle and matches. (Heavy-duty balloons like those found in party stores work best.) Fill the balloon with water, blow in a small puff of air and tie it off. Next, set it outside or in the freezer. (If you want a completely round surface on your lantern, don't add the puff of air, and when you set your balloon out to freeze make sure you place it knot-side down.)

Leave the balloon in the cold long enough for ice to form, but before all of the water freezes solid. Think of a tray of ice cubes that aren't quite frozen. If taken out too early, the centers will still contain water which, when poured out, leave a hollow block of ice. The same concept applies to ice lanterns.

The longer you leave the globe in the cold, the thicker the walls become. Thin ice shells are pretty, but thick walls allow for more crystal-like formations and more light play.

After 12 hours or so, check on your balloon. When the ice is the thickness you want (it may take up to a day or two, sometimes longer), drain the water from the center by poking a hole in the bottom, large enough for a candle to fit through. The bottom is the last part of the balloon to freeze. You also need to make a chimney at the top of the globe for air flow, something you can do with the candle itself, a small drill, or (carefully) with a stream of warm water. But be careful; water can cause the ice to crack. You're now ready to light the lantern. Enjoy!

For even more tips, check out the Eagle River Nature Center's October newsletter (PDF), and the website of a company called Winter Craft, which sells starter kits created by a Minnesota woman who has turned making ice lanterns into a business venture.

Some advice from the research staff at Alaska Dispatch: Dress for the cold and for a mess. It will happen, and trust us -- ice water on any part of your body is unpleasantly cold. Play around with the display; some lanterns look best with the large open hole as the base, while others look best displayed with that wider hole upward, like a bowl. Smaller candles won't melt your lantern as fast as big ones, and a little light goes a long way. Finally, don't display the lanterns directly on wood. Give them a snow cushion or some branches to rest on; otherwise you risk freezing them firmly to the surface.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

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