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In the United States, a yellow ribbon is used as a symbol of solidarity with someone who is far from home, and an expression of hope that he or she will return safely and soon. Numerous unrelated causes have adopted the ribbon as a symbol, somewhat blurring the symbolism of the yellow ribbon, but after the deployment of American troops to the Middle East in 2001, most Americans came to associate the ribbon specifically with active duty members of the military, and supporting American troops.
The history of the ribbon is ancient. Several folktales and songs from England document the wearing of yellow ribbons by young women waiting for their lovers to come home, and the association of this ribbon with waiting for a loved one appears to have been carried to North America with colonists. Several Civil War folksongs referenced the tradition, and a popular marching song from the First World War, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” included the ribbon as a prominent symbol of a waiting lover at home.
In the 1970s, the popular song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” was released, and a great deal of folklore arose around the circumstances of the song. According to legend, the song was inspired by a prisoner who wrote his wife shortly before his release, expressing a desire to reunite and saying that if she wanted to see him again, she should tie a yellow ribbon to a prominent tree along the road. If he saw the ribbon from the prison bus, he would know that he was welcomed home, but if he didn't, he would know that his wife had moved on, and he would keep going.
This sort appears to be apocryphal, and it is more likely that the song was inspired by older folk songs which included yellow ribbons in their imagery. However, the concept stuck in the public mind, and in 1979, Americans began to display these ribbons in solidarity with the captives involved in the Iran Hostage Crisis. The ribbon became a potent and familiar symbol, and it was adopted again in the First Gulf War by parents and friends who were anxious to see the return of their loved ones in the military.
After the deployment of American troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, an explosion of magnetic yellow ribbons appeared on American cars large and small. These ribbons often included a legend reading “support our troops,” and some integrated a version of the American flag. Some organizations dedicated funds from the sales of these ribbons to supporting military causes, while others sold them primarily for profit, recognizing that many Americans wanted to express solidarity with service members in a highly visual way.
I remember the yellow ribbons popping up during the Iranian hostage crisis. They were everywhere. When I saw the movie "Argo," the shots of yellow-ribboned wreaths on the doors and ribbons tied to light poles was so jarring. I'd forgotten how prevalent they were until then. It brought tears to my eyes.
The yellow ribbon concept has stayed in the American consciousness, and it's still not uncommon for families who have loved ones overseas in the armed forces to tie yellow ribbons to their mailboxes, or around the oak tree in the yard, if they have one.