Away in a manger

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. USA, 19th century, author unknown.

Stanzas 1 and 2 of this Christmas hymn were published in Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families (Philadelphia, 1885) published by the Lutheran Church in America. Verse 3, ‘Be near me, Lord Jesus’, was added in Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs (Louisville, Kentucky, 1892), edited by the Lutheran pastor Charles Hutchinson Gabriel*.

For various reasons, summarized below, it has been attributed to Martin Luther*; but in the words of Fred D. Gealy (quoted in the Companion to UMH, 1993, p. 223) ‘all that can be said confidently about the origin of this carol is that Martin Luther himself had nothing to do with it.’ The New Oxford Book of Carols (1992) quotes an article by Richard Hill (Notes, American Music Library Association, III/i., December 1945) suggesting that the text may have originated in celebrations among American Lutherans of the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1883.

The misattribution was the work of James R. Murray (1841/2-1905), who printed the hymn with his own tune in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses (Cincinnati, 1887), heading it ‘Luther’s Cradle Hymn (composed by Martin Luther and still sung by German mothers to their little ones)’. As Young (1993) has pointed out, this was following a 19th-century tradition that saw Luther not only as the great reformer but also as a ‘kindly family man’ (Young, 1993, p. 224). An engraving of Luther with his family on Christmas Eve had been the frontispiece to a set of engravings by C.F.L. König, published in Philadelphia in 1855; and Theophilus Baker Stork (1814-1874), in a book called Luther at Home (Philadelphia, 1872) had said that ‘Luther’s carol for Christmas, written for his own child Hans, is still sung’. Murray must have assumed, perhaps understandably, that this was ‘Away in a manger’.

There have been a few alterations to the original text. Stanza 1 line 1 was ‘Away in a manger, no crib for his bed’; line 4 was ‘The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay’; stanza 2 line 1 was ‘The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes’; line 4 was ‘And stay by my crib watching my lullaby’.

Young (p. 225) prints the first stanza of a German translation, beginning ‘So arm in der Krippe/Keine wiege zum Bett’.

In the USA the hymn is sung to a tune by Murray from his Dainty Songs of 1887; in Britain it is invariably sung to a tune by William J. Kirkpatrick* from Around the World with Christmas. A Christmas Exercise (Cincinnati, 1895) edited by H.E. Hewitt (words) and John R. Sweney* and Kirkpatrick (music). Both tunes have been given the unoriginal name AWAY IN A MANGER. In either setting the hymn has become much loved by children and adults alike throughout the world.


Further Reading

  1. Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1993).
  2. Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford and New York, 1992).
  3. Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 54-55).
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