In 1791, the Delaware Legislature established Georgetown as the county seat and required that Sussex County residents travel there in order to vote on Election Day. The votes were counted, and two days later, citizens returned to Georgetown to hear the results read.
In 1811, the Legislature established voting districts, but results were still tallied and announced in Georgetown.
While television and the Internet has obviously eliminated the need for Return Day, tradition has kept the festival alive. Schools and government offices shut down for the afternoon of the Thursday after Election Day, and people from throughout the state flock to Georgetown for the festivals. The day still has a carnival atmosphere, complete with merchants, food vendors, and competitions, such as a hatchet-tossing contest, pitting the mayor of Georgetown against the mayors of other Sussex County towns.
The winner and loser of each race ride together in a horse-drawn carriage in a parade from Georgetown Middle School to The Circle, where they are announced and pass a reviewing stand. Other participants in the parade include current state officials, high school marching bands, and local pageant winners.
Ceremonial burying of the hatchet
Playing off the figure of speech "to bury the hatchet" (meaning to put aside differences), the Sussex County chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties meet on stage to literally bury a hatchet. The chairmen each clutch the hatchet and together plunge it into a box of sand.
Reading of the returns
During the ceremony, the town crier (currently W. Layton Johnson) appears on the balcony of the County Courthouse and reads the results of statewide and Sussex County elections.
Harkening back to the 19th century, when voters returning to Georgetown could dine on such fare as roast ox and opossum, modern Return Day festivities kick-off with a concert and ox roast. A whole ox is roasted all night in the courthouse parking lot. After the reading of the returns the next afternoon, all attendees are offered a free roast beef sandwich.
Unofficial beginning of the campaign season
Return Day is used by many politicians as a way to announce or create buzz for their upcoming campaign. Politicians often hand out campaign stickers for the office they will seek in two years. Other people wear stickers exhibiting wishful thinking or encouraging their favorite candidate to seek higher office, such as supporters of Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who at the 2004 Return Day, wore "Ruth Ann for President" stickers.
The biggest buzz at the 2006 Return Day was caused by stickers reading "I Back Jack," handed out by Jack Markell supporters. The stickers purposely did not mention an office, allowing speculation to continue that Markell, at the time the state treasurer, would run for governor in 2008. He did run for governor and was elected.
- The History of Delaware by J. Thomas Sharff. 1888.
- delawareonline ¦ The News Journal, Wilmington, Del. ¦ Georgetown Timeline