“Light One Candle” from 1960s folk band Peter, Paul and Mary remains one of the most popular and well-known original Hanukkah songs written by an American band. Penned by the band’s only Jewish member, Peter Yarrow, it tells the story of the Maccabees, but also carries in it some political messages inspired by Israel’s second Lebanon War.
Forty years after it was first performed in a Hanukkah-time concert at Carnegie Hall in 1982, the band’s two surviving members, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stooke, who are both 85, sang the song at a recent concert in Nashua, New Hampshire. On the first night of Hanukkah they shared an incredible video of the two of them performing it, imploring us all: “Don’t let the light go out.”
Watching them sing, it’s clear that all these decades later, the light is still very much burning in these two musicians. It’s an infectious, passionate performance, and even though lovers of the band miss the gorgeous harmonies of Mary Travers, the duo more than does the song justice, fiercely strumming their guitars and singing lyrics that feel more timely than ever.
“Light One Candle” is a kind of Jewish contemplation of what the holiday means in modern times, a bold statement about the need to light candles for “the wisdom to know when the peacemakers’ time is at hand,” and for “the strength I need not to become my own foe,” with a plea to not let “anger tear us apart.” It also urges us to think of others’ suffering: “Light one candle for those who are suffering, pain we learned so long ago.”
All these sentiments are certainly even more pertinent now in the wake of the deadly war in Israel and Gaza.
The band’s message has always been pretty progressive and anti-war, one of bringing light to social issues. They sang at the March on Washington in 1969. Yarrow himself has long spoken in favor of peace in Israel, and even participated in a music solidarity project with Palestinian and Israeli artists.
When Peter Paul and Mary sang the song in a war-torn Israel in 1982, Travers recalled in 1983 that they didn’t want to sow more division, but to share their message of peace, knowing that many of those in the crowd had been directly affected by the price of that war. “We didn’t want to be against anything specific, like Lebanon or the occupation, but for something — the moral ethic which is the essence of Israel.”
By the end of the concert, there were people singing along, shining lights from the crowd, wishing to not let the light go out, but to let it shine through “our love and our tears.”
Today, it may be hard to find “peace as the song in our hearts,” but it is, perhaps, more important than ever.