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Songs of Christmas: Away in a Manger

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Many of the Christmas songs we sing have origins in Europe, but there are a few that were composed in America. Ironically, one of the most well-known songs that seems to have originated in America seems to have grown in popularity in part because of a likely false belief that it actually came from Germany. This song is “Away in a Manger.” 

The Story
“Away in a Manger” first appeared in an 1882 anti-masonic journal published in Chicago, in which it was said to have been composed by Martin Luther as a song to sing to his children and was popular among German mothers and thus called “Luther’s Cradle Song.” In the next few years, this song was then published in various other magazines and publications with similar claims. However, it does not appear that this song was known in Germany before it appeared in America, with the German version sounding more like a translation of this song rather than an original of which the English would be a translation. Therefore, most people now believe the song originated in America and that Martin Luther was not the composer.

One might ask why it would have been attributed to Martin Luther if this was not true. Martin Luther was born in 1483, so 1883 was the 400th anniversary of his birth and there was much interest in him around the time of the first publication of this hymn. Thus, a connection to him would likely cause more interest in this hymn than if it was from someone else’s hand. Because Luther was known as a songwriter and a family man, the story of him composing this hymn makes it plausible – in fact, there was another hymn that Luther wrote for his children about the birth of Christ called “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” (which means “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”). 

So, is “Away in a Manger” more or less a “forgery” that was falsely put forth under his name? That is certainly possible, though there could also be a less sinister explanation for  its connection to Luther, such as that some speculated this anonymous work could go back to Luther, and eventually this possibility was viewed as fact. I haven’t been able to find a person that people identify as the most likely author for the first two verses that were printed in those publications; thus, it seems best to view it as coming from an anonymous American Christian. A third stanza appeared in an 1892 publication by Charles Gabriel, with a story later arising that this verse was written by a man named John MacFarland; however, others speculate that Gabriel himself may have written it but not claimed credit.

While it is uncertain who wrote the words, it is pretty clear who wrote the music. The song quickly became popular and was set to a number of different tunes. The most common melody in England is an 1895 tune from American songwriter William Kirkpatrick, but in America, the most common tune is from 1887 written by James Ramsey Murray. Ironically,  Murray often does not get credit for this work on the music. When he published the song, he noted that it came from Martin Luther, so many thought Murray had not written the music but only helped with the arrangement. For some reason, the music was eventually associated with someone named Carl Mueller (a person who is otherwise unknown), and the tune was thus called “Mueller.” Thus, both the words and the music to this great song have been misattributed over the years!

The Song
As noted above, the original song only featured two verses, with a third verse added that serves as something of a prayer that shifts the song from singing about what occurred in Bethlehem to how we should respond to such events. 

The song itself is pretty simple and depicts Christmas as a peaceful, quiet, and serene night, which is likely why it has served as a wonderful song for kids but also loved by adults. The familiar opening words from which the song gets its name are actually a bit peculiar when you think about it. What does it mean to be “away in a manger”? This refers to the fact that Jesus’s birth happened “away” – not just from the palaces and powerful elements of society, but actually away from the normal circumstances of this world as Mary and Joseph did not have a place to stay. This is important for us to remember, as we can sanitize Christmas a bit, with the manger Jesus was placed in seeming to look more like a crib than like a feeding trough that was filled with hay! 

The second verse has proved to be surprisingly controversial over the years, due to the phrase “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” As any parent (or really a person who has ever been around babies) knows, babies cry. That is what they do. It is not because they are sinful, but that is how they communicate their needs – that they are hungry or need to be changed. So some have viewed this line as Jesus being this baby who would never cry. That would make him unlike every other child and potentially question whether he has really been like us in every way (a common heresy throughout church history that denies Jesus’s humanity). But closer examination shows that this might be trying to make these words of the song say more than they are meant to do; it does not say that Jesus never cried, but just that after his birth, he truly “slept like a baby”! There were noises, such as cows “lowing” (their normal sound; we would probably say “mooing” today) and babies awakening (though I am not sure where such a baby would be since Jesus was “away”), but there was a peace in Jesus that night. It could even point forward to Jesus’s peace and sleeping in the middle of a storm. It shows that same peace that Jesus brings in life.

The end of the second verse is interesting in that it shifts from looking at the baby in the manger to looking at Jesus as the lord in heaven, as it says, “I love thee, Lord Jesus! Look down from the sky/And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.” This Lord who came to earth on that night is now being asked to be present with us in this evening, in the words of a child to stay by “my cradle.” I’m not sure if anyone who ever sings this song would still be sleeping in a cradle, so why say my “cradle?” Maybe this is a way of showing that we and Jesus shared this same reality, that Jesus began life as a baby – just like we do. Or maybe it is a way to remind us of our helplessness and need for Jesus. We don’t actually sleep in cradles, but we are as dependent upon Jesus as he was dependent upon his parents the night of his birth.

The third verse, which was added later, continues this theme of asking for Jesus’s presence to be with us. This verse is somewhat reminiscent of the last verse of another 19th Christmas carol that originated in America – O Little Town of Bethlehem – that asks for the presence of Christ in our lives. The hope is for Jesus to be with us in life and in death, as it asks for Jesus to stay “close by me forever” and “take us to heaven to live with thee there.” There is some irony in asking for the one who has been pushed away from society and the world and had to sleep in a manger to be near us; we are seeking him, not the approval of the world. May the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit give us that same peace we sing about in this song as we await the time in which we will see him face-to-face  – regardless of what noises and challenges we face in this world.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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