A new coat of snow had fallen during the night and covered everything with a blanket of pristine white. Fog clung to the roadsides and the adjoining woods and fields beyond. Mist rose off the lake. The atmosphere was perfect for adventuring.
Annette and I were out and about on what has become an annual holiday ritual, searching for unique craft fairs and special local handmade gifts. We noticed the sign pointing to the Andover (NH) Grange and pulled in.
As we walked up the steps of the old grange hall, our attention was caught by a series of what appeared to be enormous ice cubes, a foot or more high and wide, one on each step and glowing from within. Upon closer inspection, they each were surrounded by berries and greenery. Candle flames danced inside these mysterious and alluring, perfect holiday décor. As we continued inside, we speculated what they could be made of. They were so convincingly ice-like. We debated between resin and glass.
We entered the grange hall and picked up a few great treasures. On the way out we resumed our queries of these fascinating objects. Suddenly a voice spoke up nearby and declared they actually were made of ice! Suddenly, they became even more interesting!
The voice of wisdom was that of Steve Abbe, (pronounced Abby)..
I was thrilled to find another old-time New England craft that I’d never known about before. I asked Steve if I could document his ‘nearly lost art’ to share with other folk art enthusiasts. He agreed. I made arrangements to meet him there the following day to learn more about these ice lanterns, which he told us he’d been making since he was a child. He learned the art from his grandmother and it has become an annual wintertime tradition ever since. As a young boy, Steve assisted his grandmother to make the lanterns and line a footpath through the woods in the winter with them, from Fitzwilliam toward Jaffrey NH.
They performed this ice lantern ritual for many years. Steve’s grandmother was convinced that this pathway was imbued with some magical power. It was Steve’s task to see the candles were lit. I think it is wonderful that that special experience Steve shared with his grandmother continues as a tradition that lives on to this day.
I arrived shortly after the church next to the grange hall was letting out. There was a display in front of the church with a large Canada Goose model and two lit ice lanterns. Steve demonstrated lighting and maintaining the lanterns for me. As the temperature was hovering just at the freezing point, a small amount of water from slowly melting ice was accumulating at the bottom. Steve removed the candles and tipped the lanterns upside down to empty out the liquid, then replaced and re-lit the candles. The are very easy to maintain.
They aren’t so easy to make. Steve explained that to create these lanterns, which are a sort of sculpture really, a lot of elements are involved. Temperature is critical. It must be no warmer than 20 degrees F in order to make the process work. His grandmother used empty sap buckets, filling them with water. Today, Steve uses a variety of circular and square-shaped containers as molds. The lanterns-in-progress must be checked regularly, as they cannot freeze beyond a certain stage before the next step is required.
The ice lanterns are very labor and time intensive to make. Timing is critical as well as temperature. Ice freezes from the outside inward and from the top down.
The final lanterns are a couple of inches thick and must be turned over at just the right time and hollowed out with an ice chisel. This forms a lip on the inside top and smooths out the interior. It has to be done very carefully to avoid cracking the lanterns. Steve says the process is like baking muffins; timing and temperature, and that in the center steps, they are like eggs, very fragile.
Once the lanterns are completed, they must be kept frozen until ready to use. I have intentionally not detailed the steps in creating these too specifically as Steve has spent a lifetime perfecting this technique and is allowed some professional secrets. But you too could probably discover most of the technical aspects of this art, given a lifetime to do so. Meanwhile however, you can always purchase one or more of these beautiful and unique New England art forms, which are also very functional, from Steve.
Steve sells these masterpieces for the very modest sum of only $20 a piece. This includes the lantern, the greenery and a candle. You may pick them up from him at his home which is his first choice, or he will deliver and set them up for your special holiday and other winter events.
Steve can be contacted by phone at 496-3666, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He prefers a phone call so he can discuss the details.
These beauties last as long as the weather remains at freezing or below, usually not an issue here in New England in the winter, or they can be preserved in the freezer between uses. As we are experiencing an unusually warm December while I write this, mine is safely residing in our freezer, awaiting the inevitable long cold winter temperatures to come. I plan to set ours up on Christmas Eve and any other special winter evening.
I feel very privileged to have learned of this old-time New England folk art tradition. Thank you Steve for sharing this craft and story with me. What a wonderful legacy your grandmother left you!