Behind the Christmas Hymn: Away in a Manger

Martin LutherThis popular Christmas carol was originally thought to have been written by Martin Luther for his own children and later passed on to German mothers. That legend has since been disproven.

The first two stanza’s of the song first appeared in the Little Children’s Book published in 1885 by the John Church Company in Philadelphia. In the hymnal compiled by James R. Murray was the notation “Composed by Martin Luther for his children and still sung by German mothers to their little ones” which began the long held legend. InAway in a Manger 1887 the song was republished in “Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses” to the title “Luther’s Cradle Hymn”. The reason the song was attributed to Luther is unknown, although they were celebrating the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1883. The possibility of a marketing gimmick is also an option.

The song quickly became a favorite children’s carol. The third verse was written by Dr. John T. McFarland, a Methodist Minister, and published by Charles H. Gabriel in his 1892 hymnal, Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs.

In 1945, Richard Hill published an article about the song in Little Children’s book by German Lutherans in Pennsylvania. He stated that no author was given and no proof had ever been found in Luther’s papers. He concluded that “Although Luther had nothing to do with this hymn the colonies of German Lutherans in Pennsylvania most certainly did.”

The song has been sung to forty-one different tunes. The tune first published in Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families was to the tune “St. Kilda” by J. E. Clark. The most popular tune in the United States is “Mueller” by James R. Murray. The first half of the melody is identical to Johann Strauss Jr Waltz #4. Sir David Willcock’s arrangement is very a popular arrangement in the United Kingdom.

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