How to make luminaries out of ice

It's ingenious!
The finished ice shell
The finished ice shell

Tea candles encased in ice lined the sidewalk as my mom and I walked into the United Church in Greenwich on a biting winter night for the annual Christmas Eve service 15 years ago. Every winter since, my mom has replicated the glowing ice luminaria we saw that night for her annual caroling party.

When the flickering, cylindrical bucket-sized hunks of ice are lined up in front of our home, it means hot buttered rum and singing in the streets are soon to follow.

Luminaria during the holidays is nothing new — it’s been part of celebrations for centuries. Most people are familiar with luminaria made from a paper bag weighted by stones or sand, but the ice variety might be less known.


It took my mom several years to perfect her methods. Now, she has it down to a science perfected by years of experience and intuition. Each year requires some degree of scrambling to carry all the luminaries up from the basement freezer just in time for nightfall — it’s important not to take them out too soon so they don’t melt.

Whether you want to make two or 12 ice luminaries is probably dependent on the size of your freezer. There’s no wrong or right container, but my mom typically uses a medium-sized bucket.

First, she fills the bucket just about two thirds of the way full with water. Then, off to the freezer for at least 24 hours. “You have to eye it,” she explained while bringing one luminary up from the basement.

Next, she takes the ice out of the bucket in the sink and gently taps away at the center of one base with a knife, carefully creating a hole. She notes to be wary of any potential cracks or weaknesses in the ice that could compromise the shape of the cylinder.

If you’ve timed it right, it won’t be long before your small circle of ice breaks through to the water below. Dump the water and place the ice, which now has room for a candle inside, in a plastic bag. The ice will stay in the bag in the freezer until the night you plan on lighting them up.

When it comes time to let the lights twinkle in your ice masterpieces, simply take them out of the freezer and out of whatever packaging you may have put them in, carry them outside and carefully place a candle inside.

In an age of instant gratification, there’s something especially satisfying about seeing the shimmering lights through the clear cool ice shaped by hours of careful work.

Categories: Life and Arts

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