July 20th, 2023
It’s the famous Star Wars pun that launched a holiday, and for good reason. It’s clever, it’s catchy and, well, everyone loves Star Wars. Even if you’re not a die-hard fan, it’s nearly impossible not to smile just a little bit at this play on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s memorable line in A New Hope, which has become one of the most famous Star Wars quotes of all time: “May the Force be with you.”
But just how did that clever turn of phrase turn into a bona fide Star Wars holiday that fans celebrate on the fourth of May every year by sharing May the 4th Be with You memes, rewatching the movies, cheekily using Star Wars pickup lines and unabashedly celebrating all things Jedi? And when did Star Wars Day start? We decided to investigate. By the way, if this inspires you to have a little movie marathon of your own, here’s how to watch the Star Wars movies in order (which isn’t necessarily the order you might assume).
If you thought this phrase came from George Lucas or a really smart marketing team, you’d be wrong. So it must be the day the first movie premiered way back in 1977, right? Wrong again! (For the record, it premiered on May 25 of that year.) No, credit for that pun goes to England’s conservative party, the Tories, after Margaret Thatcher won the election to become the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom, on May 4, 1979. The group took out a newspaper ad that stated, “May the Fourth be with you, Maggie. Congratulations,” according to Newsweek.
While the pun stuck and became popular with Star Wars fans, it didn’t cross over into mainstream pop culture for another 20 years, says Dan Madsen, founder of the Official Lucasfilm/Star Wars Fan Club and founder and former publisher of Star Wars Insider magazine. “It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the Star Wars holiday became much more in the public eye, due to the fact that fans were using it constantly on social media,” he explains. Giving things an extra boost, the Toronto Underground Cinema hosted the first big organized event to celebrate the day in 2011, complete with screenings of the movies and a celebrity-judged costume contest. Here are some Star Wars facts everyone gets wrong about the movies too.
When Star Wars Day became an actual holiday
Once Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, things got serious. May the 4th got the Disney treatment and in 2013 became, as TheVerge.com aptly describes, “half earnest celebration, half shameless marketing bonanza.” It suddenly involved official events and a May the 4th Be with You logo, calls to dress up on the big day at Disney parks, movie screenings, fireworks shows, dance parties, merchandising deals and so much more.
While cynics may scoff at this blatant day of branding, there’s a reason fans still embrace it as a Star Wars holiday. “It began by the fans, for the fans. Unlike Valentine’s Day or National Enchilada Day, it didn’t begin as a corporate cash grab. It was started as a way for the Star Wars community to bask in their shared love of all things Jedi,” says Mike Avila, host of SYFY WIRE’s Behind the Panel podcast. “Once Disney bought Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise, it made perfect sense for them to embrace it. The marketing plan was already built for them.”
Still, it was more of an unofficial holiday than an actual holiday—until the California legislature voted in 2019 to officially turn May 4th into Star Wars Day. The resolution was prompted by the creation of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, which could bring an estimated $14 million in tax revenue to the southern California city of Anaheim every year, and the recognition of Disney’s “decades-long record of enhancing the quality of life for people in California and beyond,” according to Democratic Assemblyman Tom Daly.