Georgetown event Thursday marks end of election season

GEORGETOWN — Two traditions symbolic of Delaware’s historic post-election celebration will be staged Thursday on The Circle in the heart of Georgetown.

Although Sussex County Return Day was canceled due to COVID-19, the reading of the election returns and the burying of the hatchet still will be held in a brief ceremony, starting at noon.

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn and state Rep. Ruth Briggs King, both R-Georgetown, as well as Georgetown Mayor Bill West, have teamed to co-host this alternative event in the absence of Return Day, a spectacle unique to Sussex County that dates back two centuries.

Brian Pettyjohn

Sen. Pettyjohn said they heard from constituents after the Sussex County Return Day Committee’s difficult decision to call off this year’s event. The committee cited pandemic restrictions and logistical roadblocks as its reasons for cancellation.

“We heard from a lot of people in the area that they still wanted to see a Return Day happen. That is something that is extremely important to people, and they know that it is a healing process, from the political season and really the bickering that happens when you are running a campaign,” said Sen. Pettyjohn. “So the three of us — Ruth, Bill and I — decided we need to keep that tradition alive here in Sussex County, especially with it being as contentious of an election as we’ve seen – (in) our lifetimes at least.”

Sen. Pettyjohn said that before making plans, they first reached out to the Return Day Committee, offering support and assistance if the committee was interested in staging something scaled-down or modified.

“They chose not to,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. “We gave them fair warning that we were hearing from people around that they wanted it done. (Residents) wanted to continue this tradition.”

Several attempts to contact Sussex County Return Day Committee President Debbie Jones for comment were unsuccessful.

Ruth Briggs King

“Return Day is a state holiday. It’s like Christmas or some other holiday,” said Rep. Briggs King. “One might own the parade and some of the festivities or things that you associate with it, but the day itself, others are free to do something, if one group doesn’t want to.”

The event will begin at noon with the singing of the national anthem by Alison White of Millsboro, who was Miss Delaware 1997, and co-hosts Sen. Pettyjohn, Rep. Briggs King and Mayor West will give brief remarks.

Next, Sussex County Sheriff Robert Lee will read the returns, followed by the burying of the hatchet by Sussex County political party chairpersons Jane Hovington of the Sussex County Democrat Committee, Don Petitmermet of the Sussex County Republican Committee, Wolfgang VonBaumgard of the Independent Party of Delaware and Jimmy Brittingham of the Libertarian Party of Delaware’s Sussex County Committee.

The entire program is expected to last approximately 45 minutes. The Circle will be closed to traffic from approximately 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.

“People want civility. They want their government to work for them, not to be dysfunctional and constantly bickering between the sides,” said Sen. Pettyjohn. “So to have this burying of the hatchet, the reading of the returns and really just to close the chapter on the election season and start the actual process of governing, that is one of the hallmarks of Return Day.”

In normal, non-COVID-19 times, Sussex County’s Return Day celebration draws thousands of people to the heart of Georgetown and The Circle for daylong events and activities two days after Election Day, every even year.

Return Day follows Colonial tradition, punctuated by an ox roast, a gala Return Day Parade where candidates ride together in vehicles or carriages, a town crier reading the election returns from the courthouse balcony and a burying-of-the-hatchet ceremony by political party leaders, marking the symbolic end of Delaware’s political season.

In recent years, Return Day expanded to a two-day event, featuring entertainment on The Circle the evening before Thursday’s festivities.

Although the date of the first Return Day in Georgetown is uncertain, it could have been as early as 1792. State law in 1791 removed the county seat from coastal Lewes to a more geographically centered site, later named Georgetown, which required all votes to be cast in the new county seat on Election Day.

The voters would then “return” two days later to hear the results — thus, Return Day.

In 1811, voting districts in the individual hundreds were established, but the board of canvassers presided over by the sheriff would still meet two days later in Georgetown to announce the final tally.

Historical archives show that the last time Return Day was not held was 1942 through 1946, due to World War II.