It may all go back to a 1973 hit by Tony Orlando and Dawn, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” — though historians say yellow ribbons, handkerchiefs and scarves have long been symbols of awaiting a loved one’s return.

But only recently have yellow ribbons become controversial in some communities — a few years ago in South Portland, and now in the York County shiretown of Alfred.

There, Susan Babb-McKinney has been tying yellow ribbons around trees in the village green for five years to honor soldiers fighting abroad. They became more significant to her when her son Joel, an Army sergeant, was deployed to Afghanistan in April. But the ribbons became tattered, and two weeks ago the town removed them.

The village green is the site of the town’s military memorial, and the ribbons’ removal didn’t please Babb-McKinney or some local veterans. She has replaced some of them, and selectmen are letting them remain pending a decision next week.

As was the case elsewhere, the main issue isn’t the ribbons’ symbolism but their number. Some residents think a public space shouldn’t be dominated by a personal memorial, and propose that a single ribbon, or one for each family with a soldier in combat, would be sufficient. Others say there should be no limit, but that seems unlikely to be adopted.

Ribbons shouldn’t be completely banned, but because people can always put any number of them on their own property, letting a single ribbon at the green symbolize all of Alfred’s absent soldiers seems an appropriate compromise.

Certainly everyone who sees it will know why it’s there.