In just a few short days, Americans will head to the polls and determine who they want as their president for the next four years. But senators, congressmen, governors, mayors, councilmen and many other candidates around the country will secure various seats in government as well.
But regardless of what happens, the fact that this has been one of the most divisive elections in American history is unquestioned. It begs the question – what happens on Nov. 9, when the smoke clears and the path ahead is ready to be forged?
Well, Vice President Joe Biden said not all that long ago that “Washington, D.C. needs a Return Day.” And to that, we say “Amen, Mr. Vice President!”
If only the whole country could set aside their post-election differences the way we do it in Delaware.
And speaking of the vice president, Return Day has always been one of Biden's favorite events, as evidenced by the two photos below. One is of a then Sen. Biden walking the parade route in an undated photo and the second is from 2008 when he was the vice president-elect of the United States.
Return Day is steeped in history, but it’s also the overall atmosphere of the day that really takes center stage. Past grudges are ceremoniously dropped and overcome and people come together to work toward the better of the nation’s First State.
That’s the idea anyway, and for the most part it works.
So today, in our continuing look back at some of southern Delaware’s most historic and interesting people, places and things, we examine the phenomena that is Sussex County Return Day.
Let’s get started…
Return Day is the festival that Sussex County is most well known for on a national scale, along with World Championship Punkin Chunkin, and it began just a few years after the United States gained it’s independence from Great Britain.
The unique southern Delaware gathering dates back to as early as 1792, though the exact date remains a bit of a mystery due to the often-inefficient record keeping of the time.
It’s held biennially two days after Election Day and it’s a festival that is uniquely Sussex County. And if you’ve ever attended, you know that the festival’s traditions and customs are held in high regard and are continued every even numbered year without fail.
One interesting side note to the festival is the name itself, which many who were not born and raised in Sussex County just can’t seem to get right. And, truth be told, even some lifelong Delawareans screw it up from time to time.
But longtime Sussex County Return Day President Rosalie Walls says it best when someone calls her beloved festival “Returns Day.” She’ll look you in the eye, sometimes chuckle, and remind you that you don’t “returns” to Georgetown to hear the election results.
You “return,” to town, thus the name of the event.
Return Day stems from colonial times when members of the public would congregate in Georgetown two days after the election to hear the results read by the town crier. Back in the day before automatic voting machines and modern technology, votes had to be counted by hand and it generally took two days to do so, even for a small county in a small state.
The afternoon of Return Day is highlighted by a traditional parade through town and around The Circle, the biggest parade by far in Sussex County that’s held on a regular basis.
Check out this historical photo of the 1952 Return Day parade. It's interesting to note that in those days, the parade route was east to west down Market Street and around The Circle, completely the opposite of the way it's now held. Georgetown Town Hall is on the left in this photo.
After the parade comes the moment that’s captured most in photos of the event – the ceremonial “burial of the hatchet” by leaders of the county’s political parties. And, in another local twist, the hatchet is buried in sand from nearby Lewes, which served as the county seat of Sussex until 1791.
In fact, it was the move of the county seat to Georgetown in 1791 that really sparked the creation of the Return Day festival to begin with. After the move from Lewes, the Delaware General Assembly passed a law requiring every resident of the county to cast their vote at the Sussex County Courthouse in the new county seat.
Sounds easy by today’s standards, but more than 200 years ago, it was anything but. Traveling from Lewes or Seaford, or other areas to the east and west of Georgetown, took many hours, often over roads that were not in very good shape.
So what did many people do? Well, they waited.
While doing so, a bit of a carnival type atmosphere usually prevailed in Georgetown as everyone prepared for the big day. I mean, they had to be entertained somehow, right?
Which leads us to another interesting side note – the top floor of the famous Brick Hotel on The Circle in Georgetown is nicknamed Tinker Hall, because many of the men who stayed on that floor were peddlers who sold their goods and services in the County Seat, including during the biennial Return Day festivities.
The ox roast, as seen in 1952, has always been a big part of Return Day as well. It starts on the evening before the event and free ox sandwiches are handed out during the Return Day festivities on Thursday afternoon.
The unique local festival has stood the test of time and has always endured. In fact, the event has only been suspended once through the years, beginning in 1942 as the United States entered the Second World War.
Return Day was no longer necessary and, for a time, the festival seemed destined to be but a footnote in the First State’s history books. But Sussex Countians have always been a sentimental sort and the celebration was later revived in 1952.
The festive atmosphere that surrounds Sussex County Return Day has drawn the attention from politicians not only from the state’s southernmost county, but also from throughout Delaware as a whole. Office seekers from throughout the state make plans every two years to visit Georgetown on the big day, emphasizing the significance of the event.
Political winners and losers ride together in horse-drawn carriages, with winning candidates facing forward and losing candidates facing backward. Despite this time-honored tradition, rarely does a Delaware politician decline an invitation to the state’s post-Election Day celebration of the democratic process.
Highlighting the popularity of the event from its very beginnings, an 1878 newspaper report quoted John M. Clayton, United States senator from Delaware and the secretary of state under President Zachary Taylor, as saying the following about one of his favorite events (we swear this is the God's honest truth):
“The man who had been to a political meeting in Dagsboro, seen Return Day in Georgetown and visited Paris had witnessed the three most interesting sights in the world.”
The afternoon of Return Day is a holiday for county and state workers, and many in Delaware feel that the state’s historically friendly political climate is due, in large part, to the tradition of Return Day.
The event is believed to be the only one of its kind in the United States. For that reason, Biden in 2000 nominated Return Day to the U.S. Library of Congress for inclusion in the Local Legacy Events program.
Oh one last thing about Return Day – during the actual ceremony, following the parade, the town crier appears on the balcony of the County Courthouse and reads the results of the election in Sussex County (not for the entire state) because, as he says…
“they're the only results that matter.”
Now how's that for Sussex County pride?
Return Day 2016 is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 10, with the parade beginning at 1:30 p.m. Visit www.returnday.com for more information.
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