• Exploring American History

Yellow helps to symbolize patriotism

For most of us, when we think of the color yellow, we think happy thoughts of sunshine and daffodils. The bright color puts smiles on most faces and adds a degree of warmth to the rooms it decorates. At the same time, yellow also has a negative side to it. For many years, to refer to someone as “yellow” was a major insult; lowering the individual to the level of a coward and many times resulting in an invitation to a fistfight or worse for the individual who used the term.


For today's patriots, yellow is as popular a color as red, white and blue. It is commonly found displayed on their trees, cars, mailboxes and many other locations. Why though? Why do there seem to be so many yellow ribbons everywhere you look? What started this?

The custom of tying a yellow ribbon around a tree to symbolize waiting love is nothing new. In fact, the custom dates back as far as the days of Nero. During the Elizabethan era in England, people would wear yellow ribbons to signify devotion for someone who was in danger somewhere far away. The practice was referred to in several of Shakespeare’s plays, Cockney ballads and early American folk tunes. The yellow ribbon custom also appears to have a Puritan heritage. During the English Civil War, the Puritan Army of England’s Parliament wore yellow ribbons and yellow sashes onto the battlefield.


In the culture of the people of Western Christendom, ribbons hold a special place. Years ago, a young woman would tie ribbons in her hair, with the hair being a symbol of spiritual covering. The ribbon(s) was a proclamation of sorts, telling the world she was remembering someone. She was now set apart and not available for courtship because she was remembering or waiting for someone special; someone who had gone abroad and was not with her. This special individual was with her in spirit and would someday be back. Until his return, she would wait for him because he occupied a special place in her heart.


In 1917, George A. Norton penned and copyrighted a poem entitled “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who is Far, Far Away). The poem tells the story of a young girl by the name of Susie Simpkins who bore an undying love for Silas Hubbard, a cavalry officer serving in the Civil War, and wore a yellow ribbon around her neck in his honor. The lyrics were later altered by Russ Morgan for the 1949 movie entitled “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”


The practice of displaying yellow ribbons exploded in the United States during 1973 when vocal trio Tony Orlando and Dawn released their hit, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon (round the old oak tree).” Their song told the story of a convict who finished serving his time and was due to be released from prison in the near future. Concerned as to whether the girl he left behind still loved him and wanted him to return to her, he wrote her a letter in which he made one specific request. He asked that if she wanted him back, she was to tie a piece of yellow ribbon to an oak tree which was located on the edge of town by the highway where his bus would pass. If he saw no ribbon when the bus passed by, he would know she did not want him back. He would then remain on the bus and begin a new life in another town. As it turned out, when the bus approached the tree’s location, the ex-con received a shocking surprise; the tree was covered in yellow ribbons!


On January 20, 1981, shortly after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as the 40th President of the United States, the country of Iran released the American hostages they had held for 444 days at the American Embassy located in Tehran. One of those hostages was US diplomat Bruce Laingen, the most senior foreign service officer in the group and husband of Penne Laingen of Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to his return, Penne tied a yellow ribbon around an oak tree in that town. Before long, the story of her action spread and families of the other hostages began to do the same in their towns. Penne’s ribbon served to symbolize the resolve of the American people to win the safe release of the hostages and was featured prominently in the celebrations during their homecoming. Penne later donated the ribbon to the Library of Congress.


On June 11, 1991, yellow ribbons were included to honor the military when the city of New York held a parade for the returning veterans of Operation Desert Storm. Enough balloons to fill a six-story building, 200 miles of ticker tape, 10,000 pounds of confetti, and a million yellow ribbons were used in the celebration.


In 2008, Minnesota began creating Yellow Ribbon Communities. These groups create a comprehensive network that connects and coordinates agencies, organizations, resources and employers for the purpose of proactively supporting service members and military families. Since the first community was proclaimed “Yellow Ribbon” in 2008, several now operate as 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. Many others are currently in the process of becoming 501(c)(3).


To become a Yellow Ribbon City/Community, the community must develop a sustainable action plan to demonstrate a commitment to service members and military families. The community identifies and connects leaders in key areas across the community, leverages existing support activities, builds awareness throughout the community and takes action. Developing a Yellow Ribbon Network helps communities unite to honor and embrace those affected by military deployments. The outward showing of support enables successful transition all the way home. The community’s effort serves more than just the military, extending to any group in need and helping to build a stronger, more compassionate community.


Nowadays, the military conducts a “yellow ribbon ceremony” for families of troops about to be deployed. Though not a true “ceremony”, the event takes place over a two-day period prior to deployment. A number of family briefings take place, along with other activities.

The significance of "tying a yellow ribbon" represents symbolism and pride in one’s country and for those who risk their lives to protect her in times of grave danger.


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