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Away in A Manger


Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet Head;
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes.
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.
And stay by the cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

One of the best known songs of Christmas features the humble manger. As with many Christmas carols, “Away In A Manger” is bathed in so many different legends that separating fact from legend becomes almost impossible.

The first two verses of the lyrics were published in the May 1884 issue of The Myrtle, a periodical of the Universalist Publishing House in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1885, these same two verses were published in Philadelphia by the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in its collection, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families. The song bore the title “Away In A Manger” and was set to a tune called “St. Kilda,” credited to J.E. Clark. No lyricist was credited for the words of the song.

Two years later, in 1887, American hymn writer James Ramsey Murray included the song in his Dainty Songs for Little lads and Lasses (Cincinnati, The John Church Co., 1887). In that publication, the song bears the title “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” and the note “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” As nothing of the song has ever been found in Luther’s works, this attribution is probably false. It has been suggested that the words were written specifically for Luther’s 400th anniversary (which would have been November 1883) and then credited to the reformer as a marketing gimmick.

In 1892, a man named Charles Hutchinson Gabriel became the music director of Chicago’s Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. Gabriel discovered the two versions of “Away In A Manger” published by the Lutheran press and by James Ramsey Murray. He published a new edition of the carol in Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs in 1892 which contained a third verse. Gabriel credited the entire text of the song to Martin Luther, composed music for it himself, and titled it “Cradle Song.” Here we find another discrepancy. The third verse of the song is often credited to Dr. John McFarland. However, since McFarland penned the third verse in 1904, it could not have been in Gabriel’s publication in 1892.

There are at least two tunes for this beloved song. The common version heard in the United States was written by James Ramsey Murray and copyrighted in 1888. This version is also known as the “Mueller” version. In Europe, the tune “Cradle Song” was written by William J. Kirkpatrick for the musical Around the World with Christmas (1895) and is an adaptation of the melody originally composed in 1837 by Jonathan E. Spillman to “Sweet Afton,” the melody to which “Away In A Manger” was sung, possibly in protest of all things German, by Americans during World War I. An arrangement by Christopher Erskine combines the melodies of each, and was first heard in 1996 in Canberra at the annual pair of joint Carol Services in Manuka, performed by the choirs of St. Paul’s Church (Anglican) and St. Christopher’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic.). In this version, the Kirkpatrick melody is sung by one choir and the Murray melody by the other choir, alternating through the first two verses. Both tunes are sung together for the third verse.

Whoever the unknown songwriter was, he or she probably didn’t live to see the song reach the world over with its poignant message. While the mystery of origin remains, the song’s message remains, telling the story of the precious moment when a Savior came to Earth bringing peace, joy, and hope. And it has become one of the world’s most beloved Christmas messages in song.

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