Two centuries later, Return Day as vital as ever

by Michael Short on February 24, 2011

By Michael Short

Return Day may be uniquely American.

Two days after the election, politicians come together to shake hands, ride together in antique carriages and symbolically bury the hatchet. It’s considered a chance to heal and leave the past behind.

It is, political observers say, a time to put the campaign behind us and move on to the serious business of governing a state and a nation.

On Thursday, it all happens again.

The victors and the defeated ride together in antique carriages through Georgetown and around the Circle. The leaders of all the parties bury the political hatchet in a box of sand. Town crier and former Georgetown Mayor Layton Johnson will read the election results from the balcony of the courthouse.

There are free oxe sandwiches for everyone (except for the year when the fire became too hot and the metal shed caught on fire and collapsed on the oxe). Sussex County mayors hold a hatchet toss and photographers are wise to stand to one side as they snap photos.

Live music begins on Wednesday night and there will be food and vendors and music and more than a little campaigning for the next election. Don’t be surprised to see buttons for 2012 or 2014, since a few always seem to be in evidence to test the waters.

The parade, beginning at 1:30 p.m., is usually the highlight of the day and it features bands, carriages, candidates, floats, dancers, fire trucks and all the trimmings of a Sussex County parade (Sussex County Council members have a minor tradition of having carriage problems, but no parade is perfect).

The winners and losers almost always ride together and it’s considered a sign of very poor sportsmanship to violate that tradition.

In one of the most moving moments in Return Day history, the staff of the late Senator Bill Roth walked along the parade route after his death.

Following the parade, the hatchet will be buried and the results will be read. If you wait around until 4:30, the oxe sandwiches will be hot and ready to eat.

Beginning in 2008, there was also something new. Tightened security, secret service, checkpoints and rooftop snipers because of the presence of newly elected Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden has never missed a Return Day and his presence brought an air of excitement to the 2008 event. One huge banner draped from a Georgetown Circle law office proclaimed “Joe the Biden” – a reference to Joe the Plumber.

Biden took the stage in 2008 with his wife Jill and said “Jill, Baby, Jill”. It was a reference to Sarah Palin’s urging that the country “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

Biden may well be in attendance on Thursday, although it’s difficult to get anyone to confirm or deny that.

Security will be tight. Expect security checkpoints and bag checks within a block of the circle. Roads near the circle will be closed off and it’s wise to come early to avoid the headaches of roadblocks.

“My answer to that is that I will be more surprised if he (Biden) doesn’t show up,” said Rosalie Walls, the president of Return Day and a whirlwind of energy.

She went on to say that as she voted on Tuesday, she was asked by two people if they had seen Secret Service agents around the Circle. “I don’t know. I didn’t see them,” said Walls coyly, keeping her cards close to the vest.

Biden also took the opportunity in 2008 to tell a huge crowd that his job as Delaware Senator had been the best job of his life.

But despite the security, it’s a fun event that may well be unique in America. It dates back to the days when people from all over Sussex County traveled to Georgetown to hear the election returns.

In a time long before computers, instant messaging and exit polls, the trek to the county seat of Georgetown was the way that people learned results. The tradition has continued despite today’s age of instant information.

Walls has a few thoughts on why the annual event draws so many people. “We’re the only ones in the country to have such a celebration that we know of,” she said.

“Where else but the little old state of Delaware can you expect to be on a first name basis with the elected officials and the candidates?” she asked.

John M. Clayton, former Senator and U.S. Secretary of State, was quoted in 1878 as having once said “that 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 event has been featured in numerous books and on national television. In his 1888 history of Delaware, author Thomas Sharff wrote that “Return Day was one of the customs peculiar to the people of Sussex from time immemorial . . . holding a high carnival on the day when the results of the election are announced. . . Booths, stands and stalls are erected near the courthouse, where all kinds of edibles, such as opossum and rabbit meat, fish and oysters, can be procured. The women, who constitute a considerable portion of the crowd, are generously treated to cakes, candies and the best the booths afford.”

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