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Four Seasons
Making Luminarias for Winter Solstice
Every year I host a Winter Solstice party and every year I like to send my guests home with some small hand-made gift. Last year, I found the perfect gift item in an issue of Martha Stewart’s Living: luminarias made from tin cans. Although Martha featured this craft project in summer, I thought it was the perfect gift for Winter Solstice, with its symbolism of the returning light. It also resonated with the personal image I had been working with all year: of letting my light shine, instead of hiding it.

The great secret to making these little lanterns is simple. Fill empty tin cans with water and put them in the freezer until the water is frozen. Then you can use a hammer and nail to make designs in the sides. After making enough lanterns for all 40 guests at my party, I learned some handy tips.

The best cans to use are condensed milk cans. They are the only cans I found in a year of collecting that don't have corrugated sides. Although the corrugated sides aren't noticeable when the lantern is in use, they aren't as attractive when the lights are on since the corrugations obscure the design.

To make the designs, brace the tin can against a towel, set the point of the nail where you want the hole to appear, and hammer away. The ice tends to chip away from the rim so begin at the top and work your way down. But don't go too far. The biggest design flaw of my lanterns is that the wax leaks out of the bottom holes as the candle burns down. I invited friends over to help me make the lanterns and I enjoyed watching them come up with creative designs. I started out with fairly repetitive patterns, like crosses, stars, flowers (one dot in the center surrounded by 5 other dots) and borders of staggered dots. But you can also make sun symbols (a circle around a dot), wave patterns, diagonal lines, vertical lines of varying lengths, or simply scatter random dots across the surface, like stars in space. I suppose you could write your name or the name of a friend. You can use a screwdriver and other wood-working tools to make more complicated patterns than simple nail holes, especially if you are using large cans. But be careful. The heavier force of the screwdriver crumpled the sides of the flimsy tin cans I was using.

Also be careful when inserting candles into the lanterns. The inside edges are very sharp. For the same reason, I would be cautious about giving these to small children. I own a beautiful decorative tin lantern made in Mexico. It is made from a sheet of tin which was pierced, while laying flat, then bent into a circle and fitted onto a base. In this version, the sharp edges are all on the outside, making it easier to insert and light a candle.

My house was beautiful last Winter Solstice, glowing with these little tin lanterns. There were many left, after the guests departed with the lanterns they chose, and they’ve been put to good use all year long. I light one on my desk when I’m doing my writing, to indicate my recognition of the sacred nature of my work. A few found a place on the bathroom counter and are lit for candlelight baths. A few more garnish the piano, and ornament my altar. I know there are more packed away in the Christmas box. I look forward to setting them out and seeing how the house is transformed by the flickering light, like the sparkle of hundreds of stars, of my Winter Solstice luminarias.


Luminarias lighting the path to Heron House. Photo by Paul Bingman. Used with permission.

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