Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'When Christmas Morn is Dawning'

History of Hymns: 'When Christmas Morn is Dawning'

By C. Michael Hawn

“When Christmas Morn Is Dawning”
by Abel Burckhardt
Formerly attributed to Betty Ehrenborg-Posse
Trans. Joel L. Lundeen
The United Methodist Hymnal, 232

When Christmas morn is dawning,
I wish that I could be
there by the manger-cradle,
God’s Son, newborn, to see.
There by the manger-cradle,
God’s Son, newborn, to see.*
*©1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. All rights reserved.

This Swedish Christmas children’s hymn captures the moment of Jesus’ birth. The singer is invited to recall Christmas Eve as a child when viewing a crèche (manger scene) in a home or at church. Parents often read a children’s book that recounts the events of Luke 2. Many children would naturally imagine themselves at the manger-side, perhaps bringing their own gifts. This is the moment that this hymn suspends—the moment when the shepherds followed the directions of the angel, heard the angel hosts singing, “Glory to God,” and “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16, NIV).

Nothing is known of the author of the hymn text. The hymn first appeared in a Swedish periodical edited by schoolteacher G. Berggren, Andelig Örtegård för Barn (Spiritual [Herb] Garden for Children) in 1851. This publication credits German Reformed minister Abel Burckhardt (1805–1882), who was active in Basel, Switzerland, with the text. The collection states that Burckhardt adapted it from a German Christmas carol in 1845; however, the German text upon which it was based has not been found. Katarina Elisabet (Betty) Ehrenborg-Posse (1818–1880), regarded as the founder of the Swedish Sunday School, also included it in her collection, Andiga sånger för barn, Vol II (Spiritual Songs for Children) in 1856, without attribution, thus leading some to ascribe authorship to her (Stulken, 1981, p. 161).

The Swedish text (ascribed to Betty Ehrenborg)—“När juldagsmorgon glimmar”—with an undesignated English translation appears in De Ungas Sångbok (The Young People’s Songbook) (Chicago, 1914), a hymnal for the Evangelical Covenant Church of America (Swedish). This translation and its context clearly indicate a hymn intended for children—somewhat in the spirit of “Away in a Manger”—but with stronger admonitions against sinning.

Two other translations come from American Lutheran traditions. Hymn translator Claude William Foss (1855–1935), a professor of history and political science at Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois), provides a version that dates from at least 1899. Foss’s translation removes the specific mention of children, broadening the application to all who would approach the manger in a childlike spirit. The translation by Joel Waldemar Lundeen for the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), while childlike in its intent, does not address children directly. Lundeen, the son of missionaries in China, was a musician, pastor, professor, and archivist for the Lutheran Church in America (now the Evangelical Lutheran Church) [Young, 1993, p. 789]. He shifts the focus of the hymn away from sinning and toward Christ’s protection and guidance. It is likely that Lundeen knew Foss’s translation and drew upon some of Foss’s phrases for his version. Lundeen’s translation dispenses with the “lowly and meek” tropes associated with the infancy of Christ in earlier decades, avoids gender-biased designations and archaic language, and more extreme admonitions against sinning, while maintaining the warmth of Lutheran piety and the intimacy of an encounter with the infant Jesus from the first-person singular point of view.

From De Ungas Sångbok (1914)

Claude William Foss (c. 1899)

By Joel Waldemar (1978)

© 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

When Christmas morn is breaking,
The manger I would seek,
Where God, His throne forsaking,
Is resting low and meek.

When Christmas morn is dawning,
In faith I would repair
Unto the lowly manger;
My Savior lieth there.

When Christmas morn is dawning,
I wish that I could be
there by the manger-cradle,
God’s Son, newborn, to see.

What love, is Thine, descending
To come to sinful men!

Should I in sin be spending
My days of childhood then?

How kind, O loving Savior,
To come from heaven above!
From sin and evil save us,
And keep us in Thy love.

How kind of you, our Savior,
for us to come to earth.

O may we not by sinning,
despise your lowly birth.

We welcome and receive Thee,
O Jesus, children’s friend;
By sin no more I’ll grieve Thee,

But serve Thee to the end.

We need Thee, blessed Jesus,
Our dearest friend Thou art;
Forbid that we by sinning
Should grieve Thy loving heart.

We need you, O Lord Jesus,
to be our dearest friend.
Your Love will guard and guide us
and keep us to life’s end.

Swedish Lutheran pastor and composer Per Harling notes that “När juldagsmorgon glimmer” is “a most beloved Christmas hymn in Sweden and not seen any more as a Christmas song for children only, but for all generations” (Harling, 2022, Email). Whereas the original 1851 translation from German strongly admonished children against sinning, Den Svenska Psalmboken (1986), the current Swedish Lutheran hymnal, broadens the audience to include everyone and eliminates the focus on sinning. Per Harling provides the following translation of stanzas 2 and 3:

2. Welcome to this earth
in this blessed time of Christmas.
//: You have become our king,
who gives us light and peace. ://

3. We give our praises to you,
you, child in the cradle,
//: and we bow our knees
to you, o beloved Jesus.://

The tune name WIR HATTEN GEBAUET is a portion of the first line of a poem by German nationalist and journalist August von Binzer (1793–1868): “Wir hatten gebauet ein stattliches Haus” (“We have built a stately house”), a student song composed in 1819. Johannes Brahms included the melody in his Academic Festival Overture (1880). Since Brahms never attended university as a student, this orchestral work, one of Brahms’ most performed, is somewhat of a paradox. The origins of the tune are unclear—sometimes designated as a German traditional song and other times as a folksong from the central German state of Thuringia. As a hymn tune, it has been paired with several English-language texts, but mostly with a translation of “When Christmas Morn is Dawning.” Given its use as a student drinking song, it seems an unlikely tune to convey this childlike Christmas text. The structure of the text is ABB—the last two lines being a repetition of lines 3 and 4 in each stanza. The structure of the melody is ABB’—the last phrase being slightly embellished from the second phrase. The Federal States of Micronesia adopted this melody for their national anthem, “Patriots of Micronesia” (“Across all Micronesia”) in 1991.


Per Harling, Email correspondence (24 October 2022).

Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

Carlton R. Young, Hymnal Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Verses marked NIV are from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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