Editor’s Note — It’s been said that Christmas is one of the few holidays that has its own “sound track.” This is the third of a 12-part series that The Times-Gazette is presenting entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas,” that will appear daily through Christmas Eve, relating the stories behind some of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
No Christmas song is more loved than the tender children’s carol “Away in a Manger,” according to author Kenneth Osbeck in his 1990 devotional “Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions.”
He wrote that the simply worded expression of love for Jesus and trust in His faithful care appealed to both young and old alike.
“Away in a Manger,” which for many years was entitled “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” had been thought to have been written by Martin Luther for his small son Hans on the occasion of a Christmas Eve festival in 1530.
However, Richard Hill, writing in the Music Library Association’s “Notes” in December 1945, conducted a comprehensive study of the carol and wrote that it may have “originated in a little play for children to act in, or a story about Luther celebrating Christmas with his children.”
He added that it was more than likely connected to the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1883.
Osbeck said that modern research added that in Philadelphia in 1885, the first and second stanzas of “Away in a Manger” first appeared in an Evangelical Lutheran publication called the “Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families.”
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, he said that a Methodist minister by the name of Dr. John McFarland composed the third stanza for use at a children’s church program.
In his 2014 book, “Be Still My Soul: The Inspiring Stories Behind 175 of the Most Loved Hymns,” author Randy Petersen described the carol as not only one of “mistaken identity,” but also questioned the claim that McFarland authored the third stanza.
He wrote that McFarland’s composition was written between 1904 and 1908, but the verse first appeared over a decade earlier in the 1892 publication “Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs.”
Regardless of its authorship, Osbeck said the carol is usually one of the first Christmas songs learned in childhood and that “its pleasing melody and gentle message preserve it in our affections all through life.”
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