Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
This carol is of American Lutheran origin and is (mistakenly) believed by some to be Luther’s cradle song, used in his German home in the 16th century.
The use of the words “manger” and “crib” and “cradle” in the carol and in the tradition is interesting and suggests that this carol could not have been written in recent times by an English person from Great Britain, who would not have used “crib”.
“Manger” refers to the box wherein the food for the animals was placed. Since presumably the animals were out in the fields, this available box was used as the receptacle in which to place the infant Jesus (with perhaps straw and cloth to make it comfortable).
But what does “crib” refer to? In modern church talk it refers to the representation of the stall in which was the manger and where Mary and Joseph received the shepherds (this stall was probably a large cave).
However, in this carol it appears to be the name for the “box” wherein Jesus would have been placed had he been born in a home or in the inn. Probably in German American homes in the 19th century, the place where small children slept was called a crib and this referred to a small bedstead with high enclosing slatted sides (in Britain this is usually called a “cot” today but it has also been called a “crib” in earlier centuries – see the O E D).
“Cradle” refers to a bed for a baby that is on rockers.
So I conclude that for the average English speaking person, who knows that the representation of the place where Jesus was born is now called “the crib”, the first line of this popular carol is somewhat confusing, especially when it is sung by the “crib” in church! For there He is in the Crib!
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon December 16, 2004