For two decades, Joe Bianco has hosted a Christmas party at his house on Burntside Lake near Ely.
Even as the party’s guest list has swelled, a few traditions — some zany, some reverent — have persisted. And in the past few years, a new one has taken shape: a disk, 60 feet in diameter, cut into the lake’s thick ice.
With the help of an electric motor and scattered luminarias, the chunk of ice transforms into a carousel — a tranquil spinning retreat from the party’s other activities.
It’s a gift to his friends and family, he said, a labor of love that embodies the joy that those guests bring into his family’s life.
“It’s just a nice quiet way to contemplate the goodness of the season, standing on the shores surrounded by such beauty. ... It’s really magical.”
The idea for the Christmas carousel came from Bianco’s friend, Jim Lah. Several years ago, he’d seen a video of one made in Finland and kept bugging Bianco about creating something similar on Burntside.
Finally, in 2016, the two men revved up their chain saws and got to work on what they hoped would be another annual activity.
“We didn’t know what we were doing that first year,” Lah remembered. They determined the center and then used a rope to measure out the disk’s edges.
They soon learned that the water on the chain saws would freeze, requiring alternating among a few different saws. It took several hours to cut a wide enough channel to allow the disk to rotate.
“You get pretty wet,” Lah said.
This year’s creation — made on Friday by Bianco and his daughter’s boyfriend— includes a nativity set and a couple dozen luminarias.
A video showing the carousel from above, captured via drone, has already been viewed thousands of times. The channel of ice has since frozen over and the carousel isn’t rotating, but Bianco invited people to come to the lake to see his work. He wasn’t expecting the attention.
“I’m a typical Minnesotan; I’m pretty private,” he said, but added he’s happy to hear that others are able to share in the peace.
“I just hope people find it beautiful,” he said. “Next year I’ll have to think of something better if the ice is just right.”
Still, the upgrades will be in harmony with the calm of the carousel, a contrast to some of the party’s more raucous traditions, including the jocular “cake march” set to the Soviet Army Chorus and Band’s “Regimental Polka” — “It’s, uh, hard to explain,” Bianco will tell you — and the time-honored gathering around the piano for a couple of hours of belting out Christmas carols.
With each passing year, the cake march has gotten zanier, at times involving cake catapults and cakes spewing fireworks, even a levitating cake suspended by helium balloons.
That part of the evening is “quite eclectic,” Bianco said, laughing.
The ice carousel offers meditative moments after the sillier ones, Lah said. The motor is electric, meaning the little island rotates with hardly any sound at all.
“It’s so gentle and gives you this panoramic view,” Lah said, pausing and fearing he was sounding too cheesy. “We can get so busy and rushing, but out there, you just have a silent moment to think.”
The first year of the carousel, all the guests stepped onto it and bowed their heads in prayer. This year, guests chose their own time to wander down to the shore and step out onto the slowly moving ice.
Some took time to sit in a chair carved from ice or walk around the manger scene.
“It was a really spiritual thing,” Lah said. “What a peaceful reminder of what this season is truly about.”