It smelled like Christmas, church and your birthday party combined, and kids just followed their noses from through the halls of Good Luck Community Center in Lanham to the kitchen, where instructor Susan Law was melting wax to be made into festive holiday candles. Each kid carried a milk carton or an orange-juice can, which Law turned into candle molds.
"Anything that holds water can be a candle mold," she told them. "But the smoother it is on the inside the shinier the candle will be."
The smaller containers -- the juice cans and pint-size milk cartons -- would be used to make chunk candles, while the half-gallon milk cartons would be molds for ice candles, she explained.
"But you can make ice candles in those if you can get small enough pieces of ice," she consoled some disappointed-looking kids who wanted to make ice candles but had only small containers. In an ice candle, pieces of ice are alternated in a mold with layers of hot wax. Then the ice melts, it produces a Swiss-cheese effect. Chunk candles are made by layering different-colored pieces of hard, cold wax with liquid wax.
"I melted down a lot of old candles yesterday," she told them. "Them I strained it through a cloth. You have to do that if you use old candles or crayons because any bits and pieces of impurities go straight to the bottom of the mold -- which is the top of your candle.
"You can also use paraffin wax, which you can buy at the grocery store," she said, "If your Mom does a lot of canning you probably already have some at home."
The most important thing about melting wax, Law stressed, is to watch it carefully so it doesn't catch fire. A good way is to put the wax in a coffee can in a pan of water and heat the water.
"You know how candles always have a string in the middle? That's the wick," she said. "But ordinary string won't work, so you have to get a special stuff called wicking. You can buy it in a hobby store, but to save money, we're just going to use some old candles."
The kids cut the old candles so they were the same height as the molds and then Law poured in just enough wax to set the old candles, which the kids had to hold in the center of the mold.
"It looks like Koolaid and it smells like Koolaid, too," said one girl, turning the discussion to scented candles.
"This wax still has some of the scent of the candles melted down," said Law. "But some of it burns off, so we'll add some more. You have to buy scent in a specialty store. Don't use your Mom's perfume. That's alcohol-based and it won't burn."
While the wicks were setting, Law dropped bayberry scent into another batch of wax, then took a mallet to a plastic bag filled with ice cubes. The crushed ice goes on top of the layer of wax that is already set. Then another layer of hot wax is poured in.
"Help, my ice is getting skinny!" said a child.
"It's going to look like red Swiss cheese when we're done," said another, who has gotten the idea.
Most of the kids wanted candles of many colors -- red then purple, then a strip of aqua -- but those with mothers present were persuaded to stick to one Christmas color. Those making chunk candles put in chunks of solid wax, instead of ice. Law purchased the bright-colored chunks in a candle-making supply store but said you could get the same effect by cutting up old candles.
"Don't put in any more ice," Law advised a child whose mold was filled to the brim. "You want the top to be smooth."
When the ice melted and the water was poured off, the candles looked almost done. But Law told the kids to take them home -- in the molds -- and put them in the refrigerator overnight.
"Them, in the morning, put them in the freezer until you come home from school. That should make them shrink so they'll come right out of the molds," she said. "If something goes wrong, you can always melt the wax down and start all over again. That's the great thing about candles -- they're a great economy and they're never wasted."