If you’ve been on the internet anytime in the last five years, you’re no doubt aware of the Star Wars brand free-for-all that is today, May 4th. Dubbed Star Wars Day, it’s a time for fans to celebrate their love for the biggest movie series of all time — and for cartoon bears to dress up as Rebel princesses in an awkward attempt to sell you more toilet paper. But despite the barrage of tie-ins and awkward corporate tweets, or the years of fast food restaurants, candy makers, and car manufacturers co-opting beloved imagery, there’s actually something noble at the heart of it all. Because unlike some over-commercialized Hallmark holidays, Star Wars Day wasn’t simply cooked up by companies to drain you of your cash.
Well, not at first, anyway.
The phrase dates back to 1979
The tradition started rather organically, chosen by fans as a day to celebrate their love for the Star Wars movies and expanded universe. ("May the Fourth" rhymes with "May the Force," and you can figure out the rest out from there.) Grassroots fandom perpetuated the pun, until the first large organized event for the day took place on May 4th, 2011 in the Toronto Underground Cinema. Screenings of the movies were accompanied by a costume contest judged by local radio hosts and TV stars, but while it may have been the first commercial Star Wars Day gathering, it certainly wasn’t the first time people had connected the day with the films.
That goes all the way back to 1979, just two years after the original Star Wars hit theater screens. Britain’s Conservative Party, celebrating the election of new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, put out a full-page ad in the London Evening News at the time which reportedly read, "May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations."
Thatcher, who officially became Prime Minister on May 4th of that year, never addressed the connection publicly, but the pun would be brought up again in British politics 15 years later. On May 4th, 1994, UK politician Harry Cohen mentioned the phrase in a House of Commons discussion about national defense, calling it a "very bad joke" before saying his researcher that made it deserved to be fired. Weirdly, British politicians seemed to rank just behind Star Wars obsessives in their affection for the pun, continuing to invoke it into the 21st century. (In 2012, London Mayor Boris Johnson dropped the phrase to close out his re-election acceptance speech.)
Disney created the modern 'Star Wars' Day
But it wasn’t until Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm that Star Wars Day was cemented as the kind of phenomenon we know today: half earnest celebration, half shameless marketing bonanza. Disney made it a bona fide event during its first full year in charge of the franchise, inviting fans to its theme parks to party with besuited characters from the movies and watch a Star Wars-themed fireworks show and dance party. It also began the tradition of discounting Star Wars merchandise, a precedent that so many other companies followed that the official Star Wars site now tracks them all like a Dark Side version of Black Friday.
And over the ensuing years, Disney and Lucasfilm have done their best to stoke the fires of fandom that the events all depend on. One year, the day was celebrated with a jokey "attack ad" condemning May the Fourth from the perspective of the Empire, while another year saw R2-D2 teaming up with NASA to spread the message. The crew of the International Space Station even sat down to watch Revenge of the Sith last year; another time Star Wars characters showed up at minor league baseball games. It’s a delicate back-and-forth, making fans feel like the day is something that’s being celebrated by the franchise’s new corporate parent, while simultaneously using it to ramp up excitement and merchandise sales in the wake of new movies and even more brand tie-ins.
Just watching @starwars. In space. No big deal. #StarWarsDay #Maythe4thBeWithYou pic.twitter.com/iG7Pn0Fvj6— ISS Research (@ISS_Research) May 4, 2015
So with today being the first May 4th since the release of The Force Awakens, there’s bound to be more surprises and thirsty brand hangers-on than ever before. Star Wars is back at the forefront of global consciousness — and will be for years to come — and we know companies cannot be trusted when there’s social media interest to be capitalized upon. But sometimes these events can have a surprising charm to them, too, able to evoke our fondest memories even while they try to cash in on the very same thing. So maybe this year, take a deep breath and a second look at those snarky Twitter drafts before you send them. In a world of shameless corporate holidays, at least Star Wars Day started with the fans. And it’s certainly better than Revenge of the Fifth.