If you’re a Star Wars fan, you already know that May 4th is a day of online and IRL celebration. Every year, fans of the space opera can be heard greeting each other and complete strangers with six simple words: “May the Fourth be with you.”
But what once felt like a secret handshake among Jedi stans has since become something just shy of a national holiday, or perhaps, an intergalactic one. But when did Star Wars Day begin? Certainly, it had to be a long time ago, if not a galaxy far away?
Interestingly, the first major public usage of “May the Fourth be with you” wasn’t some geeky pronouncement, but rather a political joke made by British conservatives. It was a celebration of a slight return to the days of empire under Margaret Thatcher. On May 4, 1979, Thatcher had just been elected as the first female prime minister in the U.K., and the London evening newspaper ran a half-page ad that wished her well. The ad read: “Congratulations Maggie, May the 4th be with you!”
That said, the summer before in 1978 — as a pun for Fourth of July sales — the saying “had been appearing on licensed (and unlicensed) buttons, posters and various items for months, enough to convince” newspaper writers and editors “that the joke would be well-received by their readers.”
It was further popularized by Randy Thom, the director of sound design at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound. On May 4, 1982, he was working on Return of the Jedi when his brain kicked over the pun, and he just started telling his co-workers, “May the Fourth be with you.” The bit was good for morale and well-received, so he brought it back year after year after year, spreading the pun around the company.
Then, in 2005, there was that Yoda poster.
It was released as part of a campaign to get fans to see Revenge of the Sith in theaters for a second, third or fourth time. The third film from the prequels had coincidentally been released in late May, so the marketing push once again aligned with July 4.
Six years later, the first unofficial May the Fourth fan gathering took place. The event, held at the Toronto Underground Cinema, was such a hit that it became an annual celebration.
In 2012, Lucas sold his stake in Star Wars to Disney. With Disney’s rapid commercialization of the franchise, Stars Wars Day became an official holiday, celebrated with events and parades at Disneyland and Disney World. The Mouse House also began to use May 4th to offer sales and doorbuster-style deals on Star Wars merch. By 2017, when The Last Jedi was released in theaters, the day had reached its zenith (at least per Google Trends):
And so, these days, real Star Wars superfans celebrate the two subsequent days — Revenge of the Fifth and Revenge of the Sixth. If those get co-opted, too, the good news is that another such holiday is only a pun away. Though, you certainly wouldn’t want to force it.