A Unique Post-Election Event in Delaware - Could It Work Here ?

A Unique Post-Election Event in Delaware - Could It Work Here ?

Journeys into River Edge

This is a story set elsewhere. But it could be a River Edge story. I’ll let you decide.

There is a town in Delaware that marks the end of the election in a unique way.

Return Day is a traditional festival for the state of Delaware that is held on the Thursday after Election Day in November. It can fall on or around November 4 every other year to mark (and celebrate) the announcement of the election results in Georgetown, Delaware. It is a public holiday in the state, a day off for the general population. Schools and most businesses are closed.

For centuries folks have traveled to Georgetown, Delaware for the celebration of Return Day. Traditionally, the festivities would start with a concert and a traditional free ox roast in the town circle. The festival events would also routinely include food vendors, competitions, musical entertainment, arts and crafts, and a parade of the winning and losing candidates from both parties.

The candidates would ride in horse pulled carriages or antique cars around the town circle, followed by the ceremonial “bury the hatchet” – where the Sussex County chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties meet on stage, clutch the hatchet and together plunge it into a box of sand from Lewes – that signifies the end of the competition. The town crier would read the results of the statewide and Sussex County elections during the ceremony, and afterward all attendees would receive a free roast beef sandwich.

The origins of this event go back to 1791. At that time the Delaware Legislature required all votes to be casted on Election Day at the new County Seat in Georgetown, Delaware. Thus, all Sussex County residents had to travel to Georgetown in order to vote on Election Day, and then return two days later to hear the results – hence the name Return Day. The winners of that year's political races would parade around the town circle in horse pulled carriages, and then the losers and the chairs of the county's political parties would perform the ceremonially "bury the hatchet" into a tub of sand.

In 1811, voting districts were created across the state, but the Board of Canvassers would still meet two days later in Georgetown to announce the final election results. Although television and the internet have eliminated the need for Return Day, the tradition has endured as a time for Delaware residents to join together for a day of fun and a touch of nostalgia. Return Day is recognized as the only event of its kind in the nation.

So, as mentioned above, the ceremonial “burial of the hatchet” symbolizes the official end of Delaware’s political season and a return to civility within Delaware politics. The sand is brought from Lewes, which is the site of the original county seat. The “hatchet” is a single-handed striking tool (axe) with a sharp blade and is also referred to as a tomahawk.

This year Return Day is scheduled for Thursday November 5. But because of the pandemic, like so much this year, Return Day this will be different this time around.

There will be no oxen roasting, or parading, or the usual crowds that line the streets. Instead, the two main festivities that the day is centered around will take place: the reading of the returns and the burying of the hatchet. Candidates in the election will not be invited to come to the event, but are more than welcome to if they would like.

The times being what they are Delaware is not immune from the partisanship and polarization seen elsewhere. Nonetheless, they will be coming together as a community to at least symbolically bury the hatchet.

Delaware State Senator Brian Pettyjohn said he received many calls from people of Sussex County who asked for the tradition to be brought back, even if some activities had to be left out.

"Hearing from the people of Georgetown and actually Sussex County, the thought that Return Day especially given the very hyper-partisan environment that we are in right now in politics that we needed a return day to bury that hatchet literally and figuratively and move forward from the election season," Pettyjohn said.

This is piece is being written on the eve of the 2020 Presidential election. So I do so without the benefit of knowing who won, who lost, and how we are feeling and acting towards one another afterwards.

Some would contend that this little story is quaint – nothing more than a nostalgia loaded relic speaking to an era of 15 cent McDonald Hamburgers and June Cleaver, a time long gone. Perhaps, but others would hold (or perhaps at least hope) that there still remains a common place among us that might allow for a Return Day here in town. It might fit in very nicely, sandwiched between the St. Peter’s Carnival, River Edge Day, the Turkey Drive and Santa’s Ride around town on the Fire Truck - part of our annual calendar that brings us together on so many occasions to interact with each other as friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.

Clearly, things are not quite that way now. Whether the pandemic or a political culture & tone set elsewhere, these are tough times. We are separated and apart in many ways. Our conversations, if we engage in them at all, are in a different tone. But maybe, just maybe, when it is safe to come out after the pandemic, perhaps it might also be safe for us to come together in a Return Day here – knowing that after all the differences seen locally through campaign lawn signs and political mailings that stuff our mailboxes, at the end of the day we are neighbors and fellow River Edgers.

Until then, here is my hope that notwithstanding all the storms and challenges, that you take care, keep as hopeful as is possible and stay safe.