Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 10, 2007

Danger in a Manger

Barnyard Dance! (Boynton on Board)

No real danger here. I just like catchy titles. Caught you, didn’t it?

Today, a report on new developments in Graham the Boy Wonder’s sense of humor, followed by more word studies of uncommon words from another classic Christmas carol.

Graham told his first real joke to me recently. It went like this: “Dad, what animal can jump higher than a house?” Me: “I don’t know. A kangaroo?” Graham: “No. All animals, because HOUSES CAN’T JUMP!”

I laughed very loud because it caught me by surprise, and was at least a little clever. But I was also beaming and proud, because he was finally old enough to understand why the joke was funny.  Up until then, he had tried to imitate jokes when older people told them, but he made random, toddler-like word and nonsense-sound substitutions that came out more surreal than genuinely funny. But this time, his timing and delivery were pitch-perfect, because he got the joke himself… he wasn’t just mimicking somebody else. Next stop, The Improv!

Our carol for today: Away In a Manger, words and music by none other than Martin Luther himself!

First up, what’s a manger? As kids perhaps we got used to thinking of the stable or the structure itself as the manger. But that’s not accurate. The word actually refers to the feeding trough that the barn animals used.

Etymology: Middle English mangeour, manger, from Middle French maingeure, from mangier to eat, from Latin manducare to chew, devour

But then, maybe we shouldn’t think too hard about this, because what if that trough or box recently contained some moldy, rotten scraps of food, the leftovers or peels cast off from the inn’s kitchen? Not exactly the most sanitary place to put a newborn. Good thing Jesus had such a tough-guy constitution.

Verse 2 begins “The cattle are lowing,” and it’s another one of those moments where I much prefer my own amusing image to the official one. In my version there are some cows, drawn by Sandra Boynton of course, doing the limbo under a bamboo pole after a few too many drinks at Jesus’ birthday bash. But no, lowing merely refers to the low, gentle, deep mooing sound made by the cattle. [Etymology: Anglo-Saxon hlowan ] Or hey, how ’bout this: they may have actually been saying “Oooh!”, because they were so impressed with the kid.

The last word in the song is the word nigh: “I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky,/And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.” It’s a word that’s also used in verse 4 of The First Noel (“This star drew nigh to the northwest, o’er Bethlehem it took its rest…”). Nigh means near, as even a child can guess from the context. So why not say near? Because it doesn’t rhyme with sky, my dear.

And think about that whole “look down” line above. At first, it seems the singer is asking Jesus to look down from the sky upon himself. But it says “my cradle”, which clearly indicates two things: first, that the song has shifted from singing about baby Jesus toward singing directly to the resurrected and ascended Jesus; second, that the song was conceived as a lullabye by Martin Luther. And doesn’t it really sound like one, after all?

Sleep tight, my friends. Dream the perfect dream. And don’t throw your sugarplum scraps out… the cattle and sheep need a bit of variety in their diet.



  1. i’m still not a fan of the whole “no crying he makes” part. i mean, babies cry. as a fully human baby, crying would be rather likily.

  2. Agreed. Entirely…

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