Christmas Tips & Fun

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Music of Christmas

Away in a Manger: A Controversial Carol


ow could anything so evocative of a lullaby be fraught with controversy?

It starts out with who wrote the words. From its publication in 1885 in Little Children’s Book: for Schools and Families, a Lutheran collection of hymns and carols, through most of the 20th century they were attributed to Martin Luther and the sheet music and hymnal notations said "Composed by Martin Luther for his children."

Except that there turned out to be no record of Luther’s having written them.

Some scholars think that the words were written as a poem celebrating the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1483 and then attributed to him. Others seem to think it was an attempt to "borrow" some of Luther’s appeal and used by a marketer to entice the faithful to buy the book.

If Luther had written it, the beginning would have gone like this: Im Stall in der Krippe 'ne Wiege aus Streu, legt kleiner Herr Jesus sein Koepfchen auf Heu. Die Sterne am Himmel, sie schauen ihm zu der kleine Herr Jesus schlaeft in himmlischer Ruh'.

As is, today children everywhere sing:

Away in a manger,
No crib for His 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 poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
'Til 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

There are at least two variations (if not more) of the music for Away in a Manger. It may have been adapted from Waltz No. 4 by Johan Strauss, Jr. or an original composition by Charles Gabriel – who also credited Luther with the lyrics. It may have been inspired by an old Austrian folk song or, as published in the Little Children’s Book, be from a melody called "St. Kilda" and transcribed by J.E. Clark.

In any case, Away in a Manger remains one of the most loved Christmas carols – no matter who wrote what.

Written by Dianne Weller
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