What are the lyrics to ‘Away in a Manger’, and why does the carol have two melodies?

6 December 2023, 18:25

What are the lyrics and origins of Christmas carol ‘Away in a Manger’?
What are the lyrics and origins of Christmas carol ‘Away in a Manger’? Picture: Alamy

By Sian Moore

The 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.

Who wrote ‘Away in a Manger’?

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 that both the words and lyrics to the Christmas carol were penned by Martin Luther, a 16th-century 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 that the the first two verses of the carol originated in the US, in the Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School’s 1885 collection Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families.

The third and final verse didn’t even exist in the carol’s earlier versions. It first appeared in an 1892 collection by Charles Gabriel, who still attributed it to Martin Luther.

A few decades later, a story in a Methodist journal claimed the third verse had been written by Dr John McFarland in 1904-1908 – but the dates of this claim make it most likely untrue.

Yet another suggestion claims that Charles Gabriel may have written the final verse himself, and attributed it to Martin Luther rather than claiming any credit for himself.

Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time

What are the lyrics to ‘Away in a Manger’?
What are the lyrics to ‘Away in a Manger’? Picture: Getty

Why are there two versions of ‘Away in a Manger’?

‘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’ – not to be confused with Brahms’ lullaby of the same name – is thought to have originally been composed by Jonathan Spilman in 1837, before being adapted in 1895 by William Kirkpatrick.

Read more: The fascinating history of the Christmas carol

King's College Cambridge 2010 #8 Away in a Manger

‘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

What are the lyrics to ‘Away in a Manger’?

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.