Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Light Up the Night

Um, I know, I'm falling a bit behind with the daily advent stuff. Well, maybe I'll catch up with some double posts soon...
Anyway, today's idea is a cheaper, greener - and I think more beautiful - alternative to running up your electric bill with a zillion strands of outdoor lights. Ice luminaria. They do work best in cold weather, but we've largely had that in spades this year in Pittsburgh (not today though - 50 degrees! And all my lanterns melted shortly after I took the photo below. Oh well, I can make them again. Back to snow tomorrow.)
You can find even more details about these in this month's issue of Nick Jr Magazine - I wrote up a bunch of the activities in the parenting pull-out, and there's lots more to like there (like a recipe for figgy pudding, plus the customs that go with it. Yes, that figgy pudding from the song. Turns out it's tasty, and even kind of good for you. Who knew?). As usual with Nick Jr, all the activities are super easy, super good, mostly "green" and fun to do with kids.

Okay, so not only are ice lanterns pretty to look at, they're a blast to make - kind of a cross between a water balloon adventure and a science experiment. All you do is fill up heavy duty latex balloons with water, let them freeze outdoors or in your freezer (but if you have room in your freezer for a bunch of BIG water balloons I am mega impressed), crack a hole in the top, pour out the unfrozen water, put a candle in the middle and light it. Voila!
More details: 
Step One I used 9" heavy duty helium balloons and filled them medium full. Kids with water balloon fight experience are good helpers for this step. You want a little air space left - the water will expand as it freezes, and the space creates a little indentation to chip away for the opening.
Step Two Put the balloons some place really, really cold and wait for the water to freeze. I put the balloons inside roundish bowls to help them keep their shape and to keep them from making my deck an icy mess if they popped, but it's not really essential.
 Waiting may sound easy, but this is really the hardest part of all. I am impatient, and it simply does take hours. Sometimes many, many hours, especially if you put them on the deck right above the vent for the dryer and then proceed to do several loads of laundry. In my freezer, it usually takes about 6 hours; outside it took overnight (at about 25 degrees). You and your child will learn (if you didn't already know) that a container of ice freezes from the outside in. This is good, at least for this project. Wait until the ice shell is at least an inch thick - but do not wait until the whole thing is frozen solid or you will have to start over. You should be able to see and feel the water sloshing about inside, but it should be kind of hard to see it, if you've gotten it frozen enough.
Step Three Don gloves to keep your fingers warm. Put the balloon in the sink (or leave it outside somewhere that can get wet) and pop the balloon with a knife or pair of scissors. The latex will pull away; make sure to discard it carefully because it's a choking hazard for kids and animals. At this point, if you decide the lantern is not adequately frozen after all, no problem - just stick it outside or in the freezer again. But if it's ready, you'll need to chip away the ice in the indentation part. This is a grown-up's job but the kids can watch and make "helpful" suggestions. I just use a slotted screwdriver and hammer; an ice pick works well too.  If it has gotten too thick, you can try drizzling hot water strategically where you want the opening; I've rescued several over-frozen lanterns/ice balls this way in the past.
When you've got a nice hole opened up, tip the ball and pour out the remaining water. 
Carry the lantern outside, drop in a tealight or two or short pillar candle (I use tongs to position the candles) and light them. Use a lighter with a long handle or a piece of dried spaghetti as a long match substitute (Martha Stewart tip - and a good one).
These look beautiful lining a path or even just individually by the front door, sort of jack o' lantern style. 

I got lots of nice tips from Jennifer Shea Hedberg at this site when I was writing the piece for Nick Jr. And here's an idea for a slightly different ice lanterns from Better Homes and Gardens that uses buckets instead of balloons and adds pretty things like greens and fruit slices to the ice. Finally, these sites here and here have some interesting history on the use of ice lanterns in China and pictures of the super cool and breathtaking ice festival in the northern China city of Harbin.

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