A reader writes:
I am with you on ribbons. I hate them, and they are everywhere for everything. They usually remind me of the Seinfeld episode from so many years ago, where Kramer ended up ganged up upon at an AIDS walk because he dared not wear a ribbon. I also have for some time hated the magnetic ones, either yellow or American flag emblazoned, for people to stick on their cars that say “I support our troops”. I often mentally add “at least in so far as buying this magnetic ribbon at a convenience store,” since for so many years most of us were not asked to make any sacrifices for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another quotes me:
“The fact that we gays started this lame tradition truly saddens me.” We’re off the hook for that one. The AIDS red ribbon was designed in emulation of the use of yellow ribbons to express solidarity with the Iran hostages in 1979 and revived during the first Gulf War, and that use of the yellow ribbon almost certainly was inspired by the popularity of the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn, which updated a meme (we used to call them “legends”) that dates back decades earlier – though not verifiably as far back as the Civil War, despite popular belief (see this Library of Congress piece). So this is one of those rare fashion trends where gays followed rather than led.
Not noted in the LoC piece is that almost immediately after the yellow ribbons being worn for the US hostages, GREEN ribbons started being worn to show concern for the black children of Atlanta during the extremely scary period of the Atlanta Murders, the serial killings for which Wayne Williams was eventually convicted. If you find any 1981 photo of Robert DeNiro receiving his Oscar for Raging Bull, he’s wearing a green ribbon on his tuxedo lapel.
I also didn’t know what the green ribbons were supposed to signify. So, I looked it up on Wikipedia: You’re right. They’ve run out of colors, and are now just recycling them over and over again. “In 17th Century England during and after the English Civil War the wearing of a sea-green ribbon signified affiliation with the ideals of the Levellers and later in the century with radical Whiggism.” More recently, green ribbons have been used to show support for issues as varied as cannabis legalization, farm families, music education and those suffering from various illnesses. Hilarious.
Update from a reader:
Your reader wrote that the yellow ribbon is “a meme (we used to call them “legends”) that dates back decades earlier – though not verifiably as far back as the Civil War, despite popular belief (see this Library of Congress piece).” That’s incorrect, though understandably so given what’s on the public record. I’m a historical researcher myself, and while pursuing an unrelated project I found a mention of an Englishwoman wearing yellow ribbons for a faraway lover, one that dates to the late 18th century, probably 1788. So the idea certainly predates the American Civil War.
I just want to clarify why the Sandy Hook ribbons are green. The school colors of Sandy Hook are green and white. I cannot believe I am emailing about this, but as someone who grew up in Newtown and whose parents still live there, one of whom has been in the middle of this tragedy, I felt I needed to set the record straight. So yes, maybe the ribbons are lame and show up everywhere now, but the color does have real meaning to the people in Newtown and Sandy Hook.