For those that would prefer it, there is an audio track of this blog post. Don’t forget after listening to skip to the end of this post to play the recording of the Carol.
This well known carol is often sung with or by children, but where does it come from?
A bit of history
The first two verses seem to have appeared in the USA soon after 1880, but no one knows who wrote it. The third verse became known about ten years later.
For many years, Martin Luther’s name was attached to it – in fact in America it was often called Luther’s Cradle Song – but it is pretty clear that he had nothing to do with the writing of it.
One suggestion, which seems plausible to me, is that it originates from a story or play about Martin Luther celebrating Christmas with his children, probably dating from the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1883.
In any event it was copied and reprinted many times in those early years, which accounts for many small variations in the words.
One change first appeared in 1899. It alters a phrase in verse three from ‘take us to heaven’ to ‘fit us for heaven’. This is quite a significant theological change, and means the carol now does point us to what Jesus came to do.
Many different tunes have been used with this song, with a distinct difference in preference between the UK and USA.
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 You, Lord Jesus! Look down from the sky
And stay by my side until morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus: I ask You to stay
Close by me forever and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Your tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with You there.
The carol’s inspiration is from the beginning of Luke’s gospel
and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.Luke 2:7
That’s pretty much the whole Biblical basis for it as far as I can see. It is fine as far as it goes, although even for children I would prefer “Once in Royal David’s City” which has rather more biblical content.
One controversial line needs a special mention.
In verse two it says “But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”.
I’ve always contrasted that with the line from “Once in Royal David’s City” that says “Tears and smiles like us He knew”
HOWEVER on looking at the Wikipedia article I see a different interpretation.
Looking at the context of this line we have
“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes.
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”
Linked with the line before like this, it could be interpreted to mean we have a baby woken up by the animal noises, but not beginning to cry. This is obviously possible and makes more sense than saying that Jesus never cried. It is an interesting viewpoint.
A modern version
Phil Wickham has produced a modern version with some new lyrics on his new Christmas album, and I’ll comment on those too.
“The dawn of salvation beginning to break”Phil Wickham – Away in a Manger
I really like this line, perhaps it echoes this verse from Matthew’s gospel
“he will save his people from their sins”.Matthew 1:21
And then the last line of the new second verse –
“The King of the heavens, forever with us”Phil Wickham – Away in a Manger
This gives rise to two thoughts.
Let all God’s angels worship him”Hebrews 1:6
via the line “Born the King of Angels” from “O Come All Ye Faithful”.
they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).Matthew 1:23
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.Matthew 28:20
Phil’s third verse is praising Jesus
My God and my SaviourPhil Wickham – Away in a Manger
My King and my friend
and he finishes with the song of praise that is often appended to the Lord’s Prayer
Yours is the glory, forever. AmenPhil Wickham – Away in a Manger
Now listen – and worship!