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Return Day, Delaware’s centuries old election tradition, is postponed

Fights between Republicans and Democrats couldn't fell the century's old tradition, but the COVID-19 pandemic did.

Return Day — Delaware’s longtime election tradition that pairs winners and losers in a carriage ride around the Circle in Georgetown — is postponed for 2020.

Fights between Republicans and Democrats couldn’t fell the centuries old tradition, but the COVID-19 pandemic did.

“We had hoped that by this time the COVID-19 virus would be a thing of the past,” said a letter from Debbie Jones, president of Sussex County Return Day Inc., which sponsors the program. “However, with the current regulations and restrictions, along with the most recent extension of the State of Emergency, we have had to make some tough decisions.”

The Return Day Inc. Facebook page said as late as June 29 that it was still on.

“The safety of everyone involved with Return Day is our priority,” the letter said. “This includes many participants and followers who come from surrounding counties and states. Even a scaled-back event would have the same concerns and not be what everybody has come to look forward to.”

She said the last time the event was not held was 1942 to 1946, because of World War II.

“We look forward to sharing the next Return Day with you!” Jones said in the letter.

The red, white and blue tradition, held every two years on the Thursday after a general election, is one of Delaware’s few truly unique events, unrivalled anywhere else.

It’s a celebration not only of the end of an election cycle, but also of the country’s great achievement of being able to hold elections and watch power pass peacefully from one person to another, one party to another, and back — and go on being neighbors and friends.

It’s possible the celebration dates back to 1790s, says a history on the Delaware Archives.

The event may have begun in 1791, when the Sussex County seat was moved from Lewes to Georgetown. All votes were cast there, and voters had to return two days later to hear results, thus earning the name Return Day, the Delaware Archives history says.

In 1811, voting districts were established and people could vote near home, but the Board of Canvassers presided over by the sheriff would still meet two days later in Georgetown to announce the final tally, the history says.

But the joyous day — which saw Joe Biden race around the circle and hang on to a carriage from the outside after being elected vice president in 2008 — isn’t just a carriage ride of opponents. Patriotic bunting hangs from buildings and the carriages and cars. There’s a parade, barbecues, a vendor fair and a symbolic burying of a real hatchet to end the day.

“In the tradition of the 19th century booths, ox roast sandwiches fresh from an all-night open-pit barbecue are distributed to the throngs attending Return Day at no charge,” the archives history says.

An 1860 article in the New York Tribune may be the first to describe the day, the history says, citing the “Georgetown collection” of Jim Bowden.

“Known only here,” the article says, “it has become an institution of the county, and is inseparably connected with its history; it is essentially the big day, and cannot be approximated, in point of interest for numbers and notoriety, by any other.

“At the early morn of the day on which Georgetown is to become the Mecca of citizens from every section of the county, persons begin to invade the town.”

A quote in an 1878 Easton, Maryland Gazette from John M. Clayton, a Delaware U.S. senator and U.S. Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor said Return Day was one of the wonders of the world.

“it is just possible that Paris may furnish more splendid opportunities for the satisfaction of the aesthetic tastes, but I doubt if anywhere else there can be found such an opportunity for observing curious types of a peculiar people as the Sussex County seat on election Return Day,” the article says.

“The congregation of people from all parts of the county on such occasions is probably a relict of the English customs, where the supporters and constituents of the Parliamentarian candidates assemble at the county season to learn the result of the contest. It was, and is, I believe the custom of these times for the member-elect to entertain the people with feasts and music.”

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