Memorable Monday: Away in a Manger

Yesterday marked the first December church service of the year, so I was finally able to whip out some Christmas carols for morning service.  My pastor’s personal favorite carol is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” so that was our first congregational singing.  But he requested an interesting pick for the second singing:  “Away in a Manger.”

“Away in a Manger” is not always top-of-mind for me when it comes to Christmas carols, but it possesses the same sweet simplicity (and triple feel) of “Silent Night.”  It’s also very easy to play, which makes it nice to crack open when practice time is short (“Hark!,” by contrast, is a bit more complicated, especially with its profusion of secondary dominants and moving to minor in the last couple of phrases).  The melody is very sweet, and easily harmonized in thirds.

I’ll be writing about more Christmas carols this season.  I hit most of the high-profile ones last year, so it’s going to be fun to dig into some of the more obscure carols over the coming weeks.  But to ease into Monday, I figured I’d look back to last year’s post on “Away in a Manger” [note:  I’ve cut out the lengthy preamble about the pending impeachment at the beginning of the original post, so as to focus exclusively on the hymn itself]:

“Away in a Manger” is one of those sweet, simple tunes that perfectly evokes the Christmas season.  The Christ Child is sleeping soundly in his manger—“no crib for a bed”—while cattle low in the distance, waking Him up.  The stars are looking “down where He lay.”  It’s all quite cozy and peaceful.

Apparently, there is some controversy about the carol’s origins.  Many hymnals, including the Free Will Baptist Hymnal from which I play every Sunday, attributes the tune and lyrics to Martin Luther.  That attribution is incorrect, but dates back to the nineteenth century, when the hymn was often added to hymnals and compilations as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.”

Like many hymns and carols, the musical setting for the tune varies.  The “Mueller” version, first published in 1887, is the most common one (or, at least to me, is the proper setting for “Away in a Manger”; your mileage may vary).  I’ve seen the “Cradle Song” version (sometimes hymnals feature both versions), and it always confuses me.  The “Mueller” possesses a certain sweetness, and the descending melody (like “Joy to the World“) has a certain memorable quality to it.

The “Cradle Song” version seems more childlike, which is appropriate, perhaps, but it comes across as a bit of a kiddie song to my ear.  It also seems to want to move faster than the “Mueller,” which proceeds at a leisurely andante.  The “Cradle Song” version trucks along, almost in a “one” feel, whereas the “Mueller” is a statelier 3/4.

Wikipedia offers several other settings, which makes for interesting perusal.  “Home, Sweet Home” (not the Mötley Crüe song, but an 1880 popular tune) is the earliest known setting for the carol, but not nearly the most popular.

Regardless, I always lump “Away in a Manger” in with a similarly themed tune, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  They both, in my mind, fall into the “peaceful Christmas carol” category.  Indeed, while playing an engagement party gig Saturday night, I played “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and one of the attendees remarked, “This is so peaceful; I could fall asleep right now.”

This sweet, sleepy little hymn, however, carries even more controversy.  Some critics accuse it of the docetism, the heresy that argued that Christ’s earthly Body was merely an illusion or, at best, a vessel for the purely divine Christ, rather than the fully God, fully Man that Christians believe.  Their support for this heretical interpretation is that the baby Jesus in the carol does not cry.  A closer reading, though, offers a better explanation:  He doesn’t cry because He is asleep!

All musicological and theological controversies aside, “Away in a Manger” is another of the wonderful, winsome tunes of the season.  It deserves its spot among the great Christmas carols.

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