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Yellow Ribbons Of Hope

Incidents of ribbons worn on collars, backpacks, cars, or hanged on house doors have been first seen when various people attempted to envision a better future and inspire hope. Wearing and otherwise displaying ribbons of various colors to remember loved ones far away or to identify with a particular cause is a contemporary custom that has its roots in both popular culture and folk tradition. Today, ribbons continue to appear on people’s garments or on their doors and cars since their symbolic meaning motivates, inspires and mobilizes people.

During the last decade, no single form of expression documented in the Archive of Folk Culture has stimulated more sympathy letters, more phone calls of compassion, more in-person inquires on the issue than the yellow ribbon. After reporters asked the US Congress to comment on the yellow ribbon frenzy that came into being in support of Americans being held hostages in Iran, between 1979 and 1981, the need to find the initiator of this ribbon-style symbol of hope and support was overwhelming. Eventually, a body of information accumulated and the story that reemphasized the yellow ribbon symbolism belonged to Penne (Penelope) Laingen, the wife of Bruce Laingen, one of the hostages in Iran during the US Embassy Tehran incident.

Bruce Laingen was serving as the charge d’affaires of the United States Embassy in Tehran when Iranian student revolutionaries seized the Embassy on November 4, 1979, and held the staff working there hostage until January 20, 1981. A few days after the incident, Penne Laingen hung a yellow ribbon around an oak tree in their house yard in Bethesda, Maryland, as a symbol of support for her husband and other American citizens who were held hostages by the Iranians. She later stated that her action was a way to bolster her own strength and that of their three sons throughout the crisis. Years after the end of the incident, in 1991, the Laingens donated this yellow ribbon to the Library of Congress. The existing collection today contains sound recordings and photographs from that donation ceremony, apart from an interview with both Penne and Bruce Laingen.

During that hostage crisis, the use of a yellow ribbon transferred to the outside world a symbolic significance that has been acquired even earlier than the US Civil War. The late Gerald E. Parsons, in his article “Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Traditions,” attempted ten years after the Iran hostage crisis to explain how this act of compassion and encouragement came into being. His founding was shocking, as it was not a custom, or a song that gave yellow ribbon its significance. It was a folk tale–a legend, actually. However, the contemporary recreation of the folk tale helps people keep their spirits up during a crisis and can indeed awake the public interest on issues some cannot and will not ever forget. Today, yellow ribbons remain symbols of peoples’ hope and support.

About the Author: John Gibb is the owner of ribbon resources
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