Robyns Lake House
Robin's Alive

Robin's Alive

Posted by Robyn Banks on Jan 22nd 2019

What do robins do in winter? What will Robyn think of next at the lake house?

Robin's Alive

Robyn is at the lake reading up on the history of Thomas Jefferson. She comes across an obscure letter from Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon and a reference to an old children's game called "Robin's alive". The year 1819 is significant for the founding of the University of Virginia. Nathaniel Macon, to whom the letter is written, was, at the time, a senator from North Carolina, a "stick in the mud" who opposed much and favored slavery, who Jefferson dubbed "Ultimas Romanorum"—“the last of the Romans”.

"[B]ut I see nothing in this renewal of the game of ‘Robin’s alive’ but a general demoralization of the nation, a filching from industry it’s honest earnings, wherewith to build up palaces, and raise gambling stock for swindlers and shavers, who are to close too their career of piracies by fraudulent bankruptcies. my dependance for a remedy however, is in the wisdom which grows with time and suffering. whether the succeeding generation is to be more virtuous than their predecessors I cannot say; but I am sure they will have more worldly wisdom, and enough, I hope, to know that honesty is the 1st chapter in the book of wisdom." - Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, January 12, 1819

What is this game of Robin's Alive that Thomas Jefferson speaks of?

Robin's Alive is a children's game played around a campfire. One child grabs a burning stick from the fire and recites the lines:

The robin's alive and likely to live
If it dies in your hand, you've a forfeit to give 

The lighted stick is passed from one hand to the next, and as the light will soon expire, the passing is done quick. The forfeit is a dare. In a game with boys and girls it could be a kiss like in  "spin the bottle", or it might be to sing a son, dance, imitate, or any of the pranks that children might think of. The one coming up with the dare being the last one to forfeit. The game can continue with all the children remaining in the game or as a game of elimination.

The game also went by the name "Jack's Alive" and had a version where the children took up competing fire-sticks and waved them at each other until one or the other went out.

There is also a Scottish rhyme that accompanies the game that goes like this:

Oh, Robin-a-Ree ye'll no dee wi' me
Tho' I birl ye round three-times three
Oh, Robin-a-Ree, Oh, Robin-a-Ree
O dinna let Robin-a-Reerie dee

In which case. the child whirls the stick around three-times three and does not poke the stick at others.

Hmmm, Robyn thinks

Having read Thomas Jefferson's words, Robyn closes the book and puts it down on the table. She stares out the window at the twinkling starlight. She thinks Tom harsh in his treatment of the game Robin's Alive. How does one compare such a game to gamblers, swindlers, and shavers. What is the harm in a forfeit, especially a kiss, a peck on the cheek.

Robyn thinks, it is a good game for the lake house. It is a bit of whimsy that hurts no one, that is, unless one is speaking of the version where fire-sticks are waved about and poked in each other's face.

That could put out an eye.

Robyn knows that wisdom comes with experience. And hopes however that it is not necessary to poke an eye with a fiery stick to learn it is better not to play like this. 

Like Tom, Robyn hopes succeeding generations will have the worldly wisdom to know that honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.