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Alaska Life

Frozen glow: ice lanterns

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published December 30, 2009

Celebrate the returning sun by capturing fire in ice. There is something magical about the warm glow of light and fire cutting through the dark depths of winter. 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 winter solstice behind us, and the sun on its slow return, the start of a new year is itself among the ways we celebrate light, and ice lanterns are an easy and fitting way to dress our surroundings up for the occasion.

On Christmas Eve years ago, I arrived home to just such a gift brightening the driveway. Someone had left a large lantern with a candle burning inside. A closer look revealed the lantern was made of ice, and a longer look down the road revealed similar lanterns had been placed on every driveway on the block, the work of a neighbor who made them in his backyard over several days, spread out over and weeks, then set them out for a very specific purpose. To safely land, Santa needed a runway, and the ice lanterns, made using five-gallon buckets as molds, lit the way.

Jill Burke photos

Ice globes, made using balloons, are a particularly intriguing spin on the tradition of ice luminaries. Start now, and with a few supplies and a little patience, you'll have a unique lantern ready in time for New Year's Eve. A word of warning, though: It's easy to get carried away. The more science you apply -- tap vs. distilled water, temperature variances, thin vs. thick walls -- the more outcomes you can achieve. The good news is even the duds are pretty. Cracks, oblong shapes, unusual crystals -- they all add character and catch the light in different ways.

Finished globes make good gifts, too, so much so that an inventive Minnesota mother has turned her lantern-making know-how into a winter business venture. Jennifer Hedberg used to give globes she made with her children as gifts to friends in celebration of the rebirth of light for Christmas, Solstice, New Year's, Kwanzaa and Chanukah. They were so popular that people started calling her, and through word of mouth she developed a booming side business selling lanterns in sizes ranging from soccer balls to beach balls for $20 to $50, and has since expanded the operation to include a "how to" kit for do-it-yourselfers.

Hedberg's lanterns have been featured at cross country ski races and this year will also be displayed at the John Beargrease sled dog marathon. Check out her Web site for pictures of her creations and more about the science behind these simple wonders.lantern-2

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 a small puff of air in and tie it off. Then, set it either outside or in the freezer. The goal is to leave the balloon in the cold long enough for ice to form and take shape, but before it freezes solid. I found metal cooking bowls are a good reinforcement - they help the globe hold its shape and naturally create a flat bottom. Also, the longer you leave the globe in the cold, the thicker the walls become. Thin ice shells are pretty, but as Hedberg points out, thick walls allow for more light play, something she discovered after her daughter forgot about a balloon and it nearly froze solid.

After 12 hours or so, check on your balloon. When the ice is the thickness you want, drain the water from the center by poking a hole in the bottom that is also large enough for the candle to fit through. 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. Next, you're ready to light the lantern and enjoy!

One final word of advice - 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.

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