Away In A Manger

Thursday, December 06, 2018

The Story Behind The Song

Traditional manger sceneThis little song, so sweet and gentle, has been a source of great controversy over the years. One of the earliest appearances of the lyrics to “Away In A Manger” was in the March 2, 1882 edition of the publication “The Christian Cynosure,” in the section “Children’s Corner.” There the first two verses were published as “Luther’s Cradle Song.”

Notes under the heading said, “the following hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, is still sung by many of the German mothers to their little ones.” Over the course of the next few years similar articles could be found in a number of publications, all stating nearly word-for-word that Martin Luther had written the lyrics.

That belief persisted well into the 20th Century, but music historians have since debunked it, based on a number of factors. For starters, the earliest version of the lyrics in German date to 1934, and that version is an awkward direct translation from the English.

The first appearance of the third verse of the song was in “Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs,” published in 1892, set to a melody written by Charles H. Gabriel. In this book the entire set of lyrics was again attributed to Martin Luther.

In the early 20th Century an American Bishop William F. Anderson claimed that when he was serving as the Secretary of the Board of Education for the Methodist Church that he wanted to use the song, by then being called “Away In A Manger,” in a children’s program. The version he had was only two verses long so, he claims, he asked John T. McFarland who was the Secretary of the Board of Sunday Schools, to write another verse. But this story seem to be a fabrication since the third verse was already in use at least 12 years earlier.

Regardless of the author, and we may never know who wrote the song, it continues to be one of the most popular Christmas carols. In Great Britain it was ranked as the second most popular carol in 1996.

Steven Curtis Chapman recorded a version of the song which was included on the album “Christmas” from Sparrow Records in 1988. This is the same album that contained Margaret Becker’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Last week we looked at the story behind “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

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