Little Lights: History of “Away in the Manger”

“Away in the Manger” is one of the first Christmas hymns many of us learn. It is simple to sing, and the words are easy to remember.

The first two verses of the song first appeared in print in a magazine in the United States in 1882 with the claim that the song was written by Martin Luther to sing to his children and that German mothers still sung it to their children. This claim was repeated as the song was printed in more publications in 1883-1885. References in these articles show that the Christmas hymn quickly gained popularity and was already a part of children’s Christmas programs by 1885.

There are, however, no copies of “Away in the Manger” anywhere in Luther’s writings nor any published versions of the song in German until 1934, a version that was clearly translated from the English. So Martin Luther didn’t actually write “Away in the Manger.”

Instead, the song was probably written by an unknown author sometime before 1882 with the fictional story about Martin Luther. Since 1883 was the 400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth, there was a broader interest and celebration of his life and work around that time. While Martin Luther didn’t actually write it, his name was still associated with the song, and it was often called “Luther’s Cradle Song” or “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” as well as “Away in the Manger” for many years.

The tune we in the United States still use for the song was composed in 1887, and the third stanza was added to the song in 1892. The other common tune used around the world for “Away in the Manger” was composed in 1895 by the same person who changed the last line of the second verse from the awkward wording of “And stay by my cradle to watch lullaby” to “And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh,” which are the words that we still sing today.

For over a hundred years, “Away in the Manger” has been a favorite Christmas song, and we can be thankful for the way God used an unknown writer and the interest in a fictional story of Martin Luther to give us a children’s hymn we still use in our church Christmas programs today.

Originally published December 2020, Vol 79 No 12