This is part 15 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
Much as we saw yesterday with “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” there is controversy surrounding the authorship of this beloved carol. In the end, the words are from an anonymous source. Some believe the song originated in Philadelphia around 1883.
There is no question about who discovered the hymn. In 1887 James R. Murray, a well recognized publisher and musician published the carol in his songbook Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses.
When Murray published “Away in a Manger,” he credited the 15th century theologian, reformer, and pastor/priest Martin Luther. Murray claimed that Luther not only wrote the hymn but that he sang it to his children when they were small. In theory that sounds wonderful but in truth, we already have a song Luther both wrote and sang to his children, “Von Himmel hoch da komm ich her.”
Some music scholars believe it is obvious Luther did not write the hymn and that it is an American creation. To support such a belief the scholars point to the work of Rev. Carlton Young, an editor on the United Methodist Hymnal. Young says when one looks at the German it is an obvious translation from English. Not being an authority on German in any way, I will have to take his word for it.
In the original version published by James Murray there were only two verse to the carol, both are considered anonymously written. Verse 3 is also unattributed. It first appeared in a songbook by gospel composer Charles H. Gabriel.
There are three primary tunes used with “Away in a Manger.” Two have used the title, “Luther’s Cradle Song.” Most popular in the United States was the tune Murray published in 1887. Much like the carol itself being mis-attributed to Martin Luther, credit for this version wrongly given to Carl Mueller. While the name of the “American” tune is “Luther’s Cradle Song,” the tune carry’s the more common name “Mueller” as well.
In England, “Luther’s Cradle Song,” more commonly just called, “Cradle Song” is the preferred tune. My wife Cindy and I have worked out an arrangement of both “Cradle Song” versions for flute and guitar.
A third tune often associated with “Away in a Manger” is “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” This tune was used by many Americans during World War I as a negative response that seemed to follow all things German. When the war ended, Mueller became the most accepted tune once again.
The country-western singer Anne Murray has done an arrangement of the carol that actually uses all three tunes. She sings verse one to the tune of “Mueller.” Verse two using “Cradle Song.” And, for verse three she sings to the tune of “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.” It is a beautiful arrangement that I have admired for several years now.
With the exception of “Jesus Loves Me,” “Away in a Manger” may be the first Christian song children learn in Sunday school, church or at home. It is quite common for many children, particularly in Christian households to know this carol by memory and be able to sing it before they are ever able to read.
The simple tune and verses make this holiday standard a favorite. Because Christmas, even in the secular world, is so much about children, “Away in a Manger” will continue as a beloved hymn of the Church for generations to come.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.