Now that we are past Advent and into the Christmastide season, I can legitimately publish Christmas carols to the list in my series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. In the church of that youth, the Christmas carols might carry on for a week or so after Christmas (depending how the calendar fell), but that would be it until December. I’m sure it was the same for many of us, who would begin the carols of Christmas again sometime early in the Advent season. This week I add a carol which it is unlikely that one can pass by a Christmas program without hearing: “Away in a Manger.”
I’ve never made any guarantees that I will like the additions to this series, though I have fond memories of most of them. In the case of this carol, I have one observation that I must make with emphasis: son of God or commoner, babies cry! The specific details of this carol may be about as plausible as “The Little Drummer Boy,” but it fits right in with the nativity pictures where the baby Jesus glows like a Chernobyl canary and all the onlookers stand back about three feet from the manger and lean back as they gaze upon him, hands on their hearts with expressions of awe plastered on their faces. In these photos, the glowing baby has typically got his arms spread wide in the same pose he apparently struck as he gave the Sermon on the Mount, if these artists be believed. In the photo I’ve selected here, we see only Mary and Joseph, looking in rather than leaning away. Still, for some reason they seem to be keeping their distance from the newborn just added to their ‘nuclear’ family. I’ve seen my share of young families with their first child, and despite said child having yet to be proclaimed the Messiah or son of God in any scenario I’ve observed, the parents are invariably gathered ’round and sticking close. And why do the animals always seem to know precisely what’s going on in these photos, as though Dr. Doolittle is hanging in the back somwhere? And how is it that they are always “clean” animals who are fully housebroken — or at least paper-trained?
Yeah, I know… I’m a Scrooge. But I’m all in favour of a bit of realism in our manger scenes. I’m not suggesting it’s completely necessary to have a mound of dung on the platform during the annual Christmas pageant, but it might not be an entirely bad idea. After all, at least it’s honest, and in some cases it may be preferable to the dung being flung on the other 51 Sundays– Alright, I’ll try to be good.
The fact is, of the many Christmas carols one hears, this one says “Christmas” in an odd way that none of the others do, and it’s a carol that most young children latch right onto. After all, these are the hymns of my youth. But from what I’ve observed, the youngest children seem particularly drawn to the baby Jesus, which makes me sort of glad he didn’t simply appear one day having reached the age of majority and lacking a proper birth certificate. No, there’s good to be said of this carol as well. Of its origin, Wikisource notes,
“Away in a Manger” was first published in an 1885 Lutheran Sunday School book by James R. Murray (March 7, 1841–March 10, 1905), but the author of the first two stanzas is unknown. There are at least two major melodies for the song, neither of them with certain authorship. It is certain that stanza three was added in 1904 by Dr. John McFarland of New York City.
And this brings us to the lyrics, which I quote despite the knowledge that we all know them by heart.
Away in a Manger
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 in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying He makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle 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 fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.