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23 November 2021, 11:38
Enduring Christmas melody ‘Away in a Manger’ is a staple of carol services and nativity plays. But what are the lyrics, who composed it and why are there two melodies?
‘Away in a Manger’ is a beloved Christmas carol, first published in the late 19th century. Here’s all you need to know about its composer, lyrics, and two famous melodies.
The origins of this festive favourite haven’t always been clear.
Until the 20th century, ‘Away in a Manger’ was known as ‘Luther’s Cradle Song’, as it was believed the Christmas carol was composed by Martin Luther, a German priest. Historians have since debunked this theory, as none of Luther’s writings mention the song, and no German text for the carol has been found from earlier than 1934.
It’s now believed the carol originated in the US, in the Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School’s 1885 collection Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families.
According to the Hymnology Archive, the song was likely written for Martin Luther’s birth and later, misleadingly attributed to Luther himself, “even though this song is not to be found in any of Luther’s hymn collections, nor it is known to have existed in any form in the German language”.
Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time
‘Away in a Manger’ has two famous musical settings – one more popular in the US, the other better known in the UK and Ireland.
The melody best known in Blighty, known as ‘Cradle Song’, is thought to have originally been composed by Jonathan Spilman in 1837, before being adapted in 1895 by William Kirkpatrick.
‘Mueller’ is the melody best known in the US. First published under the title ‘Luther’s Cradle Hymn’, it was penned by James Murray and first published in 1887’s Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses. It sounds like this:
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 bedside till morning is nigh.
Be near me, lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me for ever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
Listen to Classic FM Christmas, our non-stop playlist of Christmas melodies on Global Player.