Story Behind the Song: “It Started in a Manger”

The year was 1982, and I was attending graduate school at USC in Los Angeles, California. I’d been attending the Newman Center (a small Roman Catholic church geared toward college students) near the USC campus and was planning to attend a Christmas party there. I don’t recall much about the party, but I do remember deciding I wanted to write a song to be able to play at the party.

Having lived in Schenectady, New York for most of my life to that point, and most of the previous four years in the small college town of Potsdam, New York while attending what was then called Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University) for my undergraduate studies, living in Los Angeles was decidedly a new experience. I’d grown up with cold, often snowy, holiday seasons, with relatively small town ways. Here I was in the heart of one of the nation’s largest cities with freeways, the glitz of Hollywood not far away, warm weather (albeit with snow visible in the mountains north of the city), and big city sights and happenings. As you might expect, this made for a very different-feeling Christmas season.

While I don’t recall at this point what specifically inspired the original lyrics for “It Started in a Manger”, I do know it related to my feelings on the commercialization of Christmas, which I’ll venture seemed more pronounced to me in the big city than back where I was from. The original verses of the song were pretty much wholly a dig on that notion of the commercialization and monetization of Christmas, while the choruses served as a reminder of what the holiday was really about, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Here are those original lyrics:


Walking down the downtown streets
I see the twinkling Christmas lights
And the tinsel on the Christmas trees
Sparkles in the night
There’s a corner Santa advertising
The sale at the corner store
And the streets are trimmed in red and green
With wreathes on every door

But it started in a manger
One cold wintry night
No tinseled trees, no Santa Claus
No twinkling Christmas lights
And the Babe was born in a bale of hay
While the ox and ass looked on
There were no presents under a tree
That first cold Christmas dawn

Walking once again downtown
Right after the Day of Thanks,
Shop windows display their Christmas specials,
From department stores to banks;
And, “Buy before the Christmas rush,”
Is written between each line,
And the money flows like a waterfall
Over the fall line.

(repeat chorus)


I was thinking of it as sort of Don Henley-esque, but, in hindsight, I have to admit it was pretty bleak. Nevertheless, that version of the song went over well live and even saw a small amount of initial publisher interest in the mid-1980s, though nothing ever came of that interest.

Over a decade later, when I was permanently living in Southern California, I’d pitched a demo of the song to a publisher who specialized in Christmas music. I figured he would surely recognize this “future Christmas classic”, but he didn’t even take the song for a second listen. By that time, I’d had a lot more songwriting experience behind me, including a fair bit of exposure to song critiques of my and others’ songs by various music industry professionals. In light of this “shocking” disappointment, I started looking at the song, wondering not so much why this guy had such bad taste, but, rather, whether there might be something about the song that was making it less than marketable. (Is that ironic given the nature of the song?)

It was then that I hit upon the notion of how bleak the song was, and perhaps no one really wanted a thoroughly depressing Christmas song. Besides, the second verse really didn’t go much beyond where the first verse had gone in terms of the story. It was a little more cynical, but it was covering pretty much the same ground. I decided I’d try revising the lyrics to see if I could strengthen the song while still honoring the underlying message that Christmas was meant to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

My first attempt to rewrite the second verse had a father with a little boy, looking over a public Christmas tree, while the boy was wondering why his mother couldn’t be there, and his father didn’t know what to say to him. Alternate takes on it had the mother having passed away or left the reasons for her disappearance ambiguous. That was pretty bleak, too, though, so I went back to the drawing board.

Ultimately, still keeping with the original inspiration of a big city scene, I hit on the notion of the homeless man under the freeway, trying to stay warm. While that, in and of itself, might also seem pretty bleak, the key was the notion that Jesus didn’t just come for the people who could afford shelter, food, and Christmas presents. He came for that homeless man just as much as he came for you and me.

The final lyric, with the new second verse and a few other minor tweaks, is:


Walking down the downtown streets
I see dancing Christmas lights
And the tinsel on the Christmas trees
Shimmers in the night
There’s a cardboard Santa advertising
The sale at the corner store
And the streets are trimmed in red and green
With wreathes on every door

But it started in a manger
One cold wintry night
No tinseled trees, no Santa Claus
No twinkling Christmas lights
And the Babe was born on a bed of hay
While the ox and lamb looked on
There were no presents under a tree
That first cold Christmas dawn

Underneath the freeway ramp
A tall, dark figure stands
Rubbing palms beneath his nose
To try and warm his hands
And though he’ll have no bed tonight
No gifts under a tree
He knows Christmas is for him
The same as you and me

‘Cause it started in a manger
One cold wintry night
No tinseled trees, no Santa Claus
No twinkling Christmas lights
And the Babe was born on a bed of hay
While the ox and lamb looked on
There were no presents under a tree
That first cold Christmas dawn


Have a listen: