What are we to make of this? A pun initially used to celebrate the election of the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom becomes a meme long before the Internet is born and then morphs into the first worldwide holiday for a movie!
If you think I’m exaggerating, do your own Google search on “May the 4th be with you” and in a quarter of a second you’ll get nearly one billion hits. That’s billion! OK, slight exaggeration: it’s merely 909,000,000.
We fans know that Star Wars isn’t just any movie but one that truly justifies that overused word, phenomenon. And if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party wanted to hype her victory on May 4, 1979, with a newspaper ad that blared “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations!” who could blame it for trying to tie the party to the then-most popular movie in the British Isles?
It was exactly 15 years later that a member of the opposition Labour Party, Harry M. Cohen, used the phrase to say May 4 was an appropriate day to debate the defense budget because it could be called “national Star Wars Day.” He hastened to add that he was referring to the movie and not the name that critics called President Regan’s strategic missile defense plan.
It still took more than another decade before May the 4th started catching on in fandom. (We’ll forget Mel Brooks’ attempt at cornering the pun market with “May the Schwartz be with you!”) At first it was just a punch line to an unspoken joke. I really can’t remember the first time I heard it. It was like a tea kettle on simmer: it took a long time to boil and start blowing enough steam to whistle. When someone first mentioned a “Star Wars holiday,” I thought they were referring to May 25, 1977, the day the movie opened on 32 theater screens in the US.
And what about Life Day, that most sacred of all Wookiee holidays on the planet Kashyyyk? You have seen the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, haven’t you? But fans differ on that date, too. I always considered Life Day an analog for Christmas; others think it should be “celebrated” on November 17, the one time the show aired on television networks in the US and Canada in 1978.
Frankly, the media have a lot to do with creating Star Wars Day. It must have been slow around the newsroom in Poughkeepsie -- or Davenport, or Ashtabula -- and someone said, “Hey, you! You’ve seen Star Wars, right? Go out and find some fan and ask them how they celebrate May the 4th.” And then the Internet took over, and one story became a hundred, and that exploded into a thousand, and it kept growing. The media and the Internet are run by folks who grew up on a diet of the original trilogy, and they really like doing stories on Star Wars!
What’s even more amazing is the way that May the 4th has leaped what would seem to be insurmountable language barriers. “Que la Fuerza te acompañe,” sounds great in Spanish, but where’s the joke in “Que la Cuarta estar contigo,” or “Que le quatrième soit avec vous?" But many hardcore Star Wars fans worldwide only want to watch the movies with the original English-language soundtrack; at the least they know “May the Force be with you!”
Foreign journalists have to explain the pun in sometimes agonizing sentences. And for some, scattered events take on the aura of another Earth Day. We learn from Danish National Radio online, for example, that the day “is sacred to fans of George Lucas’ universe.” Well, at least they’re not making fun of us. The annual ritual of Hollywood kowtowing to Geekdom at San Diego Comic-Con shows where the real power lies. And that feels great after so many dark years when enjoying comic books, toys, and science fiction and fantasy meant you were some lowly slob who never dated and lived in his mother’s basement. And girls and women as fans? Now there was a fantasy! There have been enough incidents in recent years to prove that those who still make fun of fandom will quickly regret it.
While there were many May the 4th activities last year, it’s safe to say that our holiday this year will more than equal all the past ones rolled together. While fandom is still at the core, Lucasfilm, Disney, licensees, retailers, online, the broadcast media -- everyone is pitching in to make this a really special day. I half expected to see a rack of Hallmark “Happy Star Wars Day” cards -- but maybe next year!
Of all the things I’ve read about May the 4th, one of my favorites was written by Alysia Gray Painter of Los Angeles-area television station KNBC four years ago:
"What's so special about May 4, anyway...It's based on “May” and “fourth” and how much the word “fourth” sounds like the word “force”...well, you get the idea. May the fourth be with you. It's wonderfully silly, it's harmless, and we always welcome both of those things in a world that is too often neither."
Steve Sansweet, head of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm for 15 years and now Fan Relations Adviser, is chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia. To find out about joining or taking a guided tour, visit www.ranchoobiwan.org. Follow on Twitter @RanchoObiWan and https://www.facebook.com/RanchoObiWan.