THE first carol that most of us learned must be Away in a Manger, a staple of school nativity plays. With that in mind I set out to find a typical performance on YouTube. I found some lovely ones, including here and here. I stand in awe of the teachers who kept the productions on the rails. I did notice, however, that as much as I searched the children were predominantly white, which suggests to me that reports that nativity plays are being phased out for fear of offending non-Christians may be correct. Another cultural pillar being chipped away, as well as an early taste of stardom for tinies and a source of joy for proud parents.
The origins of Away in a Manger are not entirely clear, but the first two verses emerged anonymously among the American Lutheran community in Pennsylvania and were published in 1885 in Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families. The third verse appeared for the first time in Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs (1892). The connection with Lutherans led to the belief that the song was composed by Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German church reformer, but this has now been discounted.
Some theologians, presumably with time on their hands, have suggested that the line ‘the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’ is heresy, suggesting against church teaching that the baby was a super-infant whose divinity overshadowed his humanity. For this odd reason it is not included in all hymnals.
In America the carol is sung to a tune known as Mueller, probably written by James R Murray in 1887. Here is a version by the mother and daughter duo The Judds (who also did some other great Christmas tunes including Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Silver Bells and Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem).
In Britain the melody used is Cradle Song by the American composer William J Kirkpatrick, and was first published as part of an 1895 collection called Around the World with Christmas as a representative of ‘The German Fatherland’. There are at least 40 more musical settings.
Here is the choir of King’s College Cambridge in an arrangement by David Willcocks, who was their musical director from 1957 to 1974.