Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas Carols Part III: Away in a Manger

Away in a Manger is one of Your Correspondent’s favorite carols, probably because it is the only one he can sing in (approximate) key…  It also presents something of a Christmas carol mystery.

Though many have attributed Away in a Manger to Martin Luther (1483-1546), there are no documents in any way connecting it to him.  Indeed, there are no German manuscript documents of that vintage that make reference to the carol, at all.  (There are no German texts, in fact, prior to 1934 that reference the tune.)

Most scholars now believe that this lovely carol is entirely American in origin.  The first two verses of the lyrics were published under the title Luther’s Cradle Song in the November 1883 issue of The Sailors Magazine and Seamen’s Friend (claiming authorship to Luther); with another article in the May 1884 issue of The Myrtle, with the same lyrics and the same claim.  Prior to that … no trace of it exists.

The first known musical setting was published in the Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, in 1885, under the title Away in a Manger.  The third verse was written some time later, by Dr. John T. McFarland, secretary of the New York Board of Sunday Schools, between 1904-1908.  It has been in use ever since.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my 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.

A particularly lovely recording by the late John Denver can be found here:

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