It seems that everywhere you look, there’s some sort of awareness ribbon reminding us about something. At this point, some of the same ribbons mean different things to different people. For example, there’s a long list of meanings associated with green ribbons, including scoliosis, glaucoma, Lyme disease, and organ donation (just to name a few). Maybe we’ve run out of different colors to use, or maybe just the same color ribbons have been claimed by different groups around the same time. Some ribbons utilize more than one color, and some even have patterns. There’s a long list if you look up “list of awareness ribbons”. These ribbons are found throughout the world.
How did this all happen? Well, the story goes back further than I originally thought. The part I had already known about is actually kind of funny. Years ago, in 1973, a song was released by a musical act called Tony Orlando and Dawn. Very few younger people have probably heard of them. They were very popular when I was a child, and I probably only heard of them because my parents frequently listened to the radio (yes, that’s what most people did back then). The song, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, tells the tale of a man going back home and wondering if his woman still wants him. The song was actually about a man who had been incarcerated. The lyrics mention “I’ve done my time” and “I’m really still in prison and my love she holds the key”. Some took that not so literally, and attributed it to a soldier.
In 1981, the practice of using a ribbon to symbolize welcoming and support to the American hostages who were released from Iran became exceedingly popular.
When checking on this ribbon phenomenon, I found out that it goes back even more in time than I had thought. The exact origins are not known, but there are quite a few references to ribbons that are much older than 1973. That 1973 hit song, originally written under the title “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” was said to be based on a story that one of the writers had heard in the Army. In that version, it was a white kerchief, but yellow ribbons sounded better in the song. There is also a claim that there was a story in the New York Post in 1971 about a very similar story. There was another related story in Readers Digest in 1972. I’ve heard there are other versions in other places. A John Wayne movie in 1949 was called She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. A copyright for a song called “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For her Lover Who Is Fur, Fur Away)” was given to George A. Norton in 1917. Some claim the practice of wearing ribbons for soldiers existed during the Civil War, although there is debate about that. There is a possible link to a song that was popular around 1838, and maybe even a song published in 1578! I even read that there is a reference to a song in Shakespeare’s Desdemona. Some even see a similarity to the story of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible. I guess it all depends on whether or not you see a link, or just feel it’s too much of a stretch.
Wherever its true origins, or how meandering the path it has taken, it’s indisputable that ribbons have become quite popular. It seems they first were related to long lost loves who were returning home. Somehow they have come to symbolize support for various causes.