Alan Ehrlich built his first ice hanukkiah in 2002 while living on a houseboat in the Northwest Territories. The hanukkiah—a type of menorah with nine candles used to celebrate Hanukkah—was 10 feet long and two construction-sized buckets high. The idea came to him after seeing Christian friends make ice candles for Christmas.
“It occurred to me,” he says, “I could scale that up using a bucket. So, I just made one a night for eight nights.” (The ninth candle, known as the shamash or “helper” is used to light the other eight candles.)
To build his nine candles, Ehrlich used two-by-10s for the base. Then he filled a bucket with water and left it out over night to freeze. “It takes a cold night,” he says. By morning, the bucket typically wouldn’t have frozen all the way through. Some liquid would be left in the middle. “If you catch it at the right time, you can drain the water from the middle and have something you can put a candle in that doesn’t blow out,” Ehrlich says. “It lights up the ice at the edges.”
The hard part is making sure the ice is frozen enough so that it doesn’t crack when trying to take it out of the bucket. The easiest way to get the ice out is to turn the bucket upside down and dump hot water on it.
While these giant candles were impressive, it’s been a few years since Ehrlich built his last 10-foot hanukkiahs. He’s since moved from the houseboat to dry land and now has kids, which equates to a lot less time. But that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned the tradition altogether, just scaled down.
Now Ehrlich builds the candles out of yogurt-sized containers and uses Kool Aid to colour the ice. These containers freeze quickly overnight, and rather than trying to catch them at the right moment like the buckets, Ehrlich waits until they’re frozen through and then sprays holes in the middle with hot water from a spray hose, like the kind you might find next to your kitchen sink.
“I use it like a drill,” he says, “to drill into the frozen part from the open side while the ice is still in the container.” He then scoops out enough space to put in a tea light. If it’s windy, though, he suggests using electric tea lights.
To make the base for this ice hanukkiah, Ehrlich freezes a bucket all the way through. Once he dislodges the ice from the bucket, he places an ice crossbar on top that he makes by creating a trough covered in layers of five mil poly—thick plastic sheets—that he seals with water up to a few inches deep. “Leave it out for a day or two and then you can lift it out of the [trough],” Ehrlich says. He then places the candles on top of the crossbar.
To make sure nothing slides off, Ehrlich packs snow between the candles and the crossbar and the crossbar and the base. He then adds cold water so that the snow turns to slush, acting like paste to hold everything together.
Ehrlich has built an ice hanukkiah every year for the last 18 years, but recently Mother Nature’s been making the process more difficult. “There’s lots of physical evidence of climate change around here,” he says. “The last two weeks have been warm enough so that it’s a little tricky to rely on a big pail of ice freezing through. I’ve had to wait until the weather got colder. I’ve had to start later than when I started 20 years ago.”
Despite the setback, Ehrlich plans to continue the tradition. “In northern Canada, around Solstice when Hanukkah happens, there’s so much darkness that it’s a great time to have a festival of lights.”