Away in a Manger

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"Away in a Manger" is a Christmas carol first published in the late nineteenth century and used widely throughout the English-speaking world. In Britain, it is one of the most popular carols; a 1996 Gallup Poll ranked it joint second.[1] The two most-common musical settings are by William J. Kirkpatrick (1895) and James Ramsey Murray (1887).

History of the lyrics[edit]

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.[2] The article claims, under the heading "Luther's Cradle Song", that

Martin Luther, the great German reformer, who was born four hundred years ago the 10th of next November, composed the following hymn for his children; and it is still sung by many German mothers to their little ones.[2]

(This text would already have been out-of-date in May 1884.

The first two verses generally agree with the currently accepted text: the only major difference is "Watching my lullaby" instead of "Til morning is nigh" for the last line of verse two. No music accompanies the words, but the melody of Home! Sweet Home! is suggested.[2]

The song was later published with two verses in an Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children's Book for Schools and Families (1885), where it simply bore the title "Away in a Manger" and was set to a tune called "St. Kilda," credited to J.E. Clark.[3]

The third stanza, "Be near me, Lord Jesus" was first printed in Gabriel's Vineyard Songs (1892), where it appeared with a tune by Charles H. Gabriel (simply marked "C"), thus these words are probably by Gabriel. Gabriel credited the entire text to Luther and gave it the title "Cradle Song." This verse is sometimes attributed to Dr. John McFarland, but since the popular story dates his contribution to 1904 (postdating the 1892 printing by 12 years), his contribution is highly questionable.[4]

False attribution to Luther[edit]

The earliest known publication, in The Myrtle, ascribed the lyrics to German Protestant reformer Martin Luther, explicitly referencing his 400th birthday (which was in 1883). For many years this attribution continued to be made: for example Dainty songs for little lads and lasses for use in the kindergarten, school and home, by James R. Murray,[5] (Cincinnati, The John Church Co., 1887) repeats The Myrtle's title of "Luther's Cradle Hymn" and the claim that it was "[c]omposed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones".[6] However, this attribution appears to be false: the hymn is found nowhere among Luther's works.[7] It has been suggested that the words were written specifically for Luther's 400th anniversary and then credited to the reformer as a marketing gimmick.[8]

Theological ambiguity[edit]

In the second verse, the line "no crying he makes" is considered by some to fall into the heresy of docetism,[9] with the line's implication that, by not crying, Jesus could not have been fully human as is taught by orthodox Christian doctrine.[10] However, as the first two lines of that verse make clear, the context is that of a newborn having fallen asleep sometime after birth (see last line of v.1), and being later awakened by the lowing of nearby cattle. In this situation he does not "fuss" or cry. Some infants when napping usually do so and others wake and lie quietly (unless hungry, wet, or otherwise distressed), so there is nothing "not fully human" about Jesus' behavior.


Of the 41 settings listed by Richard S. Hill in his article titled "Not so far away in a Manger, forty-one settings of an American carol", published in the Music Library Association Notes (second series) III, no. 1 for December 1945,[7] the one most commonly printed in the United States is Murray's, which is typically given the name "Mueller". The first half of the melody is identical to the beginning of the second theme of Waltz #4, transposed down a fourth, in G'schichten aus dem Wienerwald, Op. 325 by Johann Strauss Jr., composed 19 years earlier.[11]

An alternate melody, composed by John Bunyan Herbert, also exists.[12]

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. Spilman to "Sweet Afton".

An arrangement by Christopher Erskine combining both settings (harmony), 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 setting is sung by one choir, and the Murray setting by the other choir, alternating through the first two verses. Both settings are sung together for the third verse.

Other notable recordings[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Away in a Manger. Accessed 7 December 2009.
  2. ^ a b c The Myrtle, vol. xxxiv no. 1. Boston, MA: Universalist Publishing House. 1884. p. 6. 
  3. ^ See this collection in Google Books, song no. 113
  4. ^ See the story in Our Hymnody: a manual of the Methodist hymnal (New York, etc., The Methodist Book Concern, 1937, p. 436)
  5. ^ "James Ramsey Murray (1841–1905)". Retrieved 2012-01-17. 
  6. ^ Scan of Luther's Cradle Hymn from Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses
  7. ^ a b Richard S. Hill, in "Not So Far Away in a Manger," Music Library Association Notes, December 1945.
  8. ^ Best-Loved Christmas Carols By Ronald M. Clancy, William E Studwell
  9. ^ Rigby, Cynthia L. (1999). "The 1999 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture". Princeton Theological Seminary. Retrieved 2013-08-09. 
  10. ^ Hackett, Kevin (2010). "Incarnation". Society of St John the Evangelist. Archived from the original on 27 December 2012. Retrieved 2013-08-09. 
  11. ^ "Away in a Manger" and Strauss's "Tales from the Vienna Woods"
  12. ^
  13. ^ "The Heart of Christmas by Sergio Franchi". iTunes. Retrieved 2012-01-17. 

External links[edit]