Make your own light, and let it shine

You can help to break the winter darkness. These projects will show you how.

For anyone living north of the equator, winter is the darkest period of the year. So perhaps this is a good time to sing the praises of lamps, lanterns, and the like.

Probably not a day goes by that you don't switch on at least one light (and maybe get reminded to turn it off, too).

But lights don't have to be high-tech to be useful. If there's a power outage, for example, candles may be handy as a backup light source.

And consider the extremely low-power night lights found in many homes. They may hug the wall near the floor, escaping notice. But come bedtime, they cast a welcome glow, lighting the way to darkened destinations such as bathrooms and kitchens.

Why are winter days so dark?

Chalk it up to the sun. It's at its lowest elevation in the sky because of the tilt of the Earth. The days are shortest just before the winter solstice (about Dec. 21). After that, we begin gaining a few minutes of daylight each day. And we continue gaining until the summer solstice, which is around June 21.

But you can help to break the winter darkness. Here are a few projects that let you do just that. Most of the materials may already be free for the asking in your home. Otherwise, they are readily available and inexpensive, which makes it even more fun to craft your own eye-catching lamps.

Candle-lit luminaria

You may have seen these candle lanterns lining a walk or a patio. As you might imagine, they should not be left unattended, since they can catch fire if you're not careful. (Have a plan to put them out, if necessary.)

The basic luminaria couldn't be simpler to make. Take a bag (a brown paper lunch bag will do) and fill it with a few inches of sand. This creates a solid base so the bag, if outdoors, won't blow over. It also helps keep the bag sides from sagging into the flame and holds the candle in place.

A short, stubby votive candle works well. Whoever lights it (ask a grownup) needs to be careful. Reaching down into the bag with a match can be a bit tricky. One helpful strategy is to light an uncooked spaghetti noodle to use as a long, finger-saving match.

There are many ways to decorate these bags. One is to cut out simple shapes from the paper - a star or a crescent moon or a heart. These shapes stand out like illuminated windows at night, much the way the carved features of a jack-o'-lantern do.

To add another decorative element, glue colored tissue paper over the cutouts. Attach the tissue paper to the inside of the bag. You can also adorn the outsides of the bags with paint and markers, if you like.

If you want something sturdier, try using a cardboard milk carton or box. The cartons are easily cut with scissors, but they have one drawback. Even if you paint it on the outside, the writing and graphics of the carton show through when illuminated.

Simply can-tastic

The sturdiest luminarias are punched-tin lanterns. These are made from tin cans. Forty-six-ounce juice containers are a good size. But smaller cans work, too, and may be easier to find in supermarkets.

What you'll do is poke a series of holes in the tin to create a pattern for the light to shine through. This technique is also used in crafting lampshades.

First, of course, you'll need an empty can. Fill it nearly to the brim with water, and put the can in the freezer. While the water is freezing, make the hole-punch pattern.

To do this, cut out a piece of paper, as wide as the can is high, to go around the outside of the can. Laying the paper flat, draw a pattern - something geometric often works well. It's best to keep the design simple for your first lantern. Later, if you like, you might draw outlines of dogs, houses, or other recognizable objects.

The pattern will be attached to the ice-filled can with tape. Then you will need a hammer and at least one easily held and struck nail, preferably a carpenter's nail with a good-size, flat head.

To keep the can from rolling when on its side, place a folded towel on your work surface (a sturdy workbench is ideal).

Now remove the can from the freezer and wrap the paper pattern around it. Secure it in place with tape (you don't want your pattern to shift). Now you're ready to start hammering. The ice will keep the sides of the can from collapsing.

Hammer through the paper and the tin, spacing the holes about 1/4-inch apart. Keep the spacing and penetration as even as possible for best effect. Rotate the can as you work, so that you are hammering straight down.

If you make a second lantern, consider using different size nails and varying the spacing for visual variety.

Getting a handle on things

If you want to hang your lantern, make a hole on either side of the can for attaching a handle. The crimped ends of an arched metal coat hanger can be slipped into the holes later.

When done punching, invert the can in a sink and let the ice melt. When reaching into the can, be careful not to catch your hand against the small metal projections of the punctured tin. Now you're ready to add a votive candle. The candle can be secured either in sand, or with candle wax or modeling clay.

Skyline boxes

These make nice accent lights, perhaps for your bedroom. A short string of Christmas lights, available in many hardware and department stores, is the inexpensive light source for this project. Corrugated-cardboard boxes of various sizes can be used.

Begin by cutting an opening for your skyline. Then paint the box. We used acrylic paints and a night-sky theme, with dots of white to represent stars.

Cut a skyline silhouette from black construction paper. For added realism, use a craft knife to cut out scattered windows. (You don't need a lot for the buildings to appear occupied).

Now cut a piece of plastic that is slightly bigger than the size of the box's window. (We used Write-On/Wipe Off Poster Board, but strips of milk carton taped together might do.) Paint the plastic on the textured side to create a sunset effect.

Attach the silhouette to the painted side of the strip of plastic, using double-sided tape. Then with regular tape, secure the strip to the inside of the window.

For the light source, use a string of Christmas lights. We chose a 50-light string of white lights, but colored lights work well, too. Take them out of the package, unwinding the lights to release the cord. Then rewind the lights around the packaging grid - or just around the dowel. Aim for compactness, not neatness.

You want to suspend the lights in the box so that they don't touch the cardboard walls. To do this, poke holes at either end of the box large enough to hold a wooden dowel rod. Slide the rod (cut slightly longer than the box) through one hole and out the other. Hang the grid from the rod using twistable garbage-bag ties. The jumble of wires and cords isn't visible from the outside.

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