Nov. 24—Hundreds of people returned to Hitchcock Woods on Thanksgiving morning for the annual Blessing of the Hounds ceremony.
For the first time since 2019, the public was welcome to attend the traditional ceremony. COVID-19 kept the public away in 2020, and the pandemic also was a contributing factor in 2021. The closure of the South Boundary entrance to Hitchcock Woods for the stormwater project also factored into the decision to not invite the public last year.
"Happy Thanksgiving," said Linda Knox McLean, one of the joint masters of the Aiken Hounds. "Here we are back at Memorial Gate after a two-year hiatus that seemed like forever."
The Blessing of the Hounds is a ceremony that dates to the eighth century. That's when St. Hubert of Liege, patron saint of hunters, held a ceremony to give hunters and their animals safe passage.
The ceremony is well over a century old in Aiken. It begins the foxhunting season for the Aiken Hounds, a group founded in 1914. About four dozen riders, a dozen hounds and hundreds of spectators gathered in the urban forest.
The Rev. George Alexander, rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Aiken, officiated and delivered the traditional blessing.
"Bless the creatures which fly, run, slither and scurry beneath this blessed canopy of trees," he said. "Bless those who lay the scented line; those who lead and those who follow and those who love and care for this sport of fellowship which harms no being."
The joint masters of the Aiken Hounds are McLean, Larry Byers, Sarah Wildasin and Karl McMillan.
Before the blessing, nine members were recognized with a conferring of colors.
Humans weren't the only ones who got attention. As the hounds entered the Memorial Gate area, they sniffed out treats and put their paws on the brick wall to greet spectators.
No live foxes are hunted. The Aiken Hounds' drag-style hunts feature a cloth saturated with fox scent and dragged through Hitchcock Woods. That creates a trail for hounds and hunters to chase.
One of the first-time spectators, Letty Dempsey, said she was thankful Aiken has places like Hitchcock Woods and events like the Blessing of the Hounds.
"I just think this is one of the reasons people should be here," she said. "It's a magical little town, and to see all the people come out and the goodwill and the love and the horses. It's just an amazing place."
At the end of the 25-minute ceremony, the riders broke into separate flights before embarking into the woods.
"Happy Thanksgiving, and have a great day," McLean said.