The story The Green Ribbon is a tale that often is confused with being in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, famously collected from folklore and urban legends by Alvin Schwartz. But it was not. It was in Alvin Schwartz’s easy reader book, In a Dark Dark Room. This “girl with a green ribbon” story is particularly well-known for many who grew up reading it in the 1980s and 90s, becoming a part of the zeitgeist in a unique and unexpected way. For many, it slowly became a classic children’s tale.
In the video we hear Barbara Schwartz, wife of author Alvin Schwartz, discussing the green ribbon story and her part in its inclusion in that book. But did you know the story goes back centuries?
The Story of the Girl with the Green Ribbon
The Green Ribbon is a story that begins with a sweet love story between a boy and girl. In the Alvin Schwartz version her name is Jenny, and she always wears a green ribbon around her neck. Alfred the boy who courts her wonders why she always wears the green ribbon. She refuses to tell him, saying that she will tell him one day when the time is right.
Time passes and Jenny and Alfred get married and live a happy life together. The Green Ribbon remains where it is, on her neck all the time.
Finally when Jenny and Alfred are very old, Jenny is on her deathbed. Alfred asks if he can finally know why she always wears her green ribbon. She says he can remove it. He does, and her head rolls off.
It is a delicious tale. Many people have vivid memories of growing up with this scary story haunting and delighting them.
Here is the full text of the Green Ribbon story that was in the book.
Once there was a girl named Jenny. She was like all the other girls, except for one thing. She always wore a green ribbon around her neck.
There was a boy named Alfred in her class. Alfred liked Jenny, and Jenny liked Alfred.
One day he asked her, “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” “I cannot tell you,” said Jenny.
But Alfred kept asking, “Why do you wear it?”
And Jenny would say, “It is not important.” Jenny and Alfred grew up and fell in love. One day they got married.
Origins of The Green Ribbon
There are various versions of the story, and the ribbon around the neck is sometimes green, while other times it is a black or red ribbon.
The origins of the girl with a green ribbon story is generally connected to French legends dating back to at least the 17th Century. It is commonly thought to be connected to the French Revolution and the use of the guillotine at the time. It is rumored that young people threw soirees that involved fashion that symbolized revolutionaries who were punished via guillotine, hence a red ribbon around the neck. It isn’t difficult to imagine stories involving such ribbons sprang up and become a common spook story. The implication is that one can never know what political affiliations and thoughts one might have underneath… under any guise they fashion in public.
By 1824 the story was likely in wide circulation at least as an oral tale. It became even more famous as it was included as a short story by Washington Irving called “The Adventure of the German Student” as part of a collection called Tales of a Traveller. This version involved a velvet necklace, and apparently was told to Irving by another famous author, Thomas Moore.
In 1970 a story called “The Velvet Ribbon” was included as a children’s tale in a book called Ghostly Fun by Ann McGovern. This version was a black ribbon, and involved the husband cutting the ribbon off, versus other versions that involved her taking it off willingly.
By 1984 when Alvin Schwartz adapted the story for In a Dark Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, the tale had a long history. But like the Grimms’ brothers and many others who became famous for retellings of folklore, it often takes a particular telling at the right time to leave a lasting impression with a new generation of children.
And here is a funny and very realistic examination of The Green Ribbon, how Alfred must have been crazy to live with someone his entire life and not know that her head was loosely attached by a ribbon.
Editor’s Note: Featured in the video is Barbara Schwartz, wife of author Alvin Schwartz, who supported him in many ways throughout his career. Barbara Carmer Schwartz passed away in late 2021 of natural causes. Our dearest sympathy to her family and friends.
Last Updated on November 19, 2023.