Two Christmas Carols and their Variations

Two traditional Christmas carols which I have sung since childhood are “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We sang these carols during church nativity pageants, on caroling walks through town and hummed them along with music playing in stores on shopping trips. Yes, the lyrics and melodies to these two beloved carols are certainly ingrained in our musical memories. Only recently did I discover that these songs are played with quite different melodies in the British Isles. In Britian, the song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” is paired with the melody, “Forest Green.” The tune, “Away in a Manger,” is paired with the melody, “The Cradle Song.” Both these traditional British melodies are quite lovely and match the quiet, peaceful nature of the Christmas carol lyrics. These tunes make a welcome change — or addition — to the Christmas carols which we play and sing here in America. Plus, “Away in a Manger” is sometimes paired with the American melody, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” For this holiday season, I made very simple arrangements of these tune variations for the dulcimer. Enjoy!

Away in the Manger

The origin of this Christmas carol is vague and cloudy. Sometimes this carol is attributed to Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), the German priest. Thus, in the 1800’s it was often known as “Luther’s Cradle Song.” However, none of his hymnal collections include this song and it is doubtful that he wrote the song. The version most often sung in American is credited to “Mueller.” It was first published under the title, “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” and was composed by James Murray. The first publication of this song was the 1887 song book, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses.  At some point, the song inexplicably became attributed to an unknown person, Carl Meuller, after it started to appear in 20th century collections under Meuller’s name. Thus, the American version is known as “Meuller.”

American composer, William Kirpatrick (1838 – 1921), wrote the other most common tune in circulation for “Away in a Manger” entitling it, “The Cradle Song.” It was first published in America in the songbook, Around the World with Christmas, in 1893. Kirkpatrick’s melody was later published in numerous hymn books and thus this melody travelled around the world. This is the melody most often song in Great Britian. In his version, the lyrics at the end of the second stanza are changed to read, “And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.” This version is known as “Kirkpatrick” as well as “The Cradle Song.”

Away in the Manger – “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton”

“Away in the Manger is sometimes also set to the tune, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.”

“Sweet Afton” is a lyrical poem written by the Scotsman, Robert Burns (1759 – 1796). One source states that “The poem was presented by Robert Burns to Mrs. General Stewart of Slair in 1791 and appeared in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792. It was inspired by her home Afton Lodge in Ayeshire on the banks of the Afton River. The Mary probably refers to Mary Campbell, whom Burns courted in 1786, the year the song was written.” (

Kentuckian J.E. Spilman (1812-1896) set Burn’s poem to music in 1837 while attending the Transylvania Law School with the new title, “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” Spilman served as a lawyer and later a Presbyterian minister. At some unknown time, the words to “Away in a Manger” became associated with Spilman’s tune.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

The lyrics to this tune were written by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893) who was an Episcopalian priest. Brooks had taken a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1865. He was inspired by a vision as he rode on horseback in the dark between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve over the fields where the shepards must have been. He could imagine the shepards “still keeping watch over their flocks.” Hence, the lyrics to the song. That night Brooks participated in the Crhistmas Eve service at the site built over the the place where the traditional Nativity was said to have taken place — which was a cave.

In 1868, Brooks asked his organist, Lewis Redner (1831–1908), to write the music for the song for the Sunday school children at his Philadelphia parish church, Holy Trinity Church. Redner, under great pressure because of the quickly approaching upcoming Christmas service, hurridly wrote the melody and entitled it, “St. Louis.” 

In the United Kingdom, melody most often sung to this Christmas carol was adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Williams was an English composer of symphonies and other choral music. He was deeply interested in collecting and preserving English folk music and folk ballads. One such folk song was, “The Ploughboy’s Dream.” This tune includes the words, “I am a plough boy stout and strong,” with words traceable as early as 1795 in a broadside. Vaughn collected the tune from Mr. Garman of Forest Green, Surrey, England in 1903. The tune was paired with the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and publshed into The English Hymnal (Oxford: University Press, 1906).

Tablature and Playing the Tunes

Included are tablature arrangements for “Away in a Manger” — The Cradle Song — and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Forest Green — as traditionally sung in Britian. I also included the alternate melody to”Away in a Manger” set to “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton.” And, at the very end of the post is a “lagniappe” tune.

All these melodies can be played at a slow, gentle pace. There is no need to “race” as playing a fiddle tune. I included chords with suggested fret numbers for fingerings above the top standard staff. Of course, any applicable chord fingering can be substituted.

To play the tunes including harmony notes, strum across the strings, holding down the frets on the middle and bass strings until the next fret change. Alternately, strum some of the notes and pick the remainder. In these tunes, some of the melody notes cross over and are played on the middle string. At times, it is best not to play the melody string, shown by an “X”.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a good tune to practice hammer-on’s, pull-off’s and slides. The eighth note “runs” seem to flow better when these notes are connected together in this manner. Takes some practice, but is well worth it.

Enjoy the three alternate melodies to these Christmas carols. They make a welcome addition to the songs which we typically know and sing.

Here are JPEG files of the tunes. Following are PDF files which are easy to download and print out.

And at the very bottom is a little “lagniappe” — the traditional American melody for “Away in A Manger” – Mueller melody.

And here is the American “Away in A Manger” version with Mueller melody:

This gives three different ways to play “Away in A Manger.” Enough variety to keep us entertained. There are many tab arrangements available of the American version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in books and on the internet; thus, I didn’t post an arrangment here. But the “Forest Green” melody for this Chritmas carol is beautiful; it stands alone.



  1. Hi Maylee…I edit the newsletter for the North Georgia Foothills Association and I am always on the look out for new tab to put into the newsletter, along with the history of the tune. Do you allow others to share the tab you post, along with the back story? I always give credit to my “sources” and will add links to your site.
    Please let me know if I may use your blog for ideas for our newsletter.
    Thanks in advance…and Merry Christmas


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