May the 4 be with you: a cultural history
Like everything that emerges from the collective passion of a group of people, the star wars fan day may 4thand each year has no single point of origin. It has no official debut year, no formal dedication. It’s a basic phenomenon that now transcends the English pun that inspired it. Around the world, “May the 4th Be With You” is better known as “star wars Day.”
The first uses of the phrase “May the 4th Be With You” of which we have evidence date from 1978, a year after the release of Star Wars: A New Hope. Until then, star wars was firmly embedded in American popular culture and became “like a handshake”, as Professor Leo Braudy would later comment in the documentary, empire of dreams. That summer of 1978, clever newspaper editors used the phrase as a gimmick to mark Independence Day celebrations on July 4. “May the Force be with you”, as we hear in A new hopehad been appearing on buttons, posters, and various licensed (and unlicensed) articles for months, enough to convince these writers that the joke would be well received by their readers.
English-speaking audiences in the UK also knew him. It was on May 4, 1979 that the first known instance of using “May 4th be with you” to mark the earlier date took place. Britain’s new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, took office that day, and another clever journalist for the London Evening News said in a full-page ad: “May the fourth be with you, Maggie. Congratulations!” (Coincidentally, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was in production at nearby Elstree Studios at the same time, and numbers from the evening newspaper could have appeared in the offices of Lucasfilm.)
Another lesser-known example came from Lucasfilm in 1982. Randy Thom, who today is Skywalker Sound’s director of sound design and has been with the company for over 40 years, worked as a sound engineer on the ground. Revenge of the Jedi (its title, of course, was later changed, and at the time of production it was known by the codename blue harvest).
Thom joined the production unit in Northern California as they filmed in the redwood forest doubling for the moon of Endor. May 4, 1982 happened to be a working day, and Thom recalled thinking of the pun to himself while contemplating the date. He shared it with others on set and would go on to write an annual message to the company declaring “May the 4th Be With You” for years to come.
In the years since, the evidence for the use of the phrase in public or in private is hazy. As recently as 2005, it was used again in the context of the American 4th of July holiday. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith had been released weeks earlier, and a marketing campaign to bring audiences back to theaters inspired a unique newspaper advertisement featuring Yoda, a red-white-blue fireworks backdrop, and “May the Fourth Be With You” (the ad was later turned into a poster sold on StarWars.com).
As the laughable pun continued to circulate underground, an unofficial holiday emerged. star wars fans chose the day to host themed parties or host community events and gatherings. Others simply used it as a time to revisit movies. It was reminiscent of other ways fans exercised their passion throughout the year, such as the popular “Blow Up the Death Star” watch-parties on New Year’s Eve. can’t take credit star wars Day. It’s up to the fans, with the irresistible pull of using the phrase to evoke laughter (or even eye-rolling) from friends, relatives, co-workers, or even puzzled strangers on the street!
I remember walking into one of my high school classes on May 4, 2011. We were seniors, weeks away from graduation, and immersed in the unmotivated stupor known as “seniority.” “. Perhaps sensing our irreverent mood, the professor had written “May the fourth be with you” on the whiteboard. Some classmates sneered at a reference to something as “corny” as star warsbut my friend and I laughed sincerely.
Looking back, it doesn’t seem that far away, but even as recently as 2011, we’ve mostly kept our love for star wars near the chest. It wasn’t necessarily something to wear on your sleeve, lest you be subjected to the harshness of teenage criticism. We don’t care what other people think of us, but like most teenagers, we are desperate to avoid that kind of ridicule.
But that same year, Lucasfilm began to take a more active role in the unofficial holiday, helping to sponsor and promote events and sharing resources for free use. We started seeing “May the 4th Be With You” on local TV news, at the grocery store, at the coffee shop, at the bookstore, or at a sports game. Every time the holidays came around, I felt like star wars was reemerging into the mainstream, perhaps much like that “handshake” had become in the late 1970s.
The acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 and the subsequent announcement of new movies entering production came like a flash of clear skies for many of us fans. star wars was center stage again, and everywhere we saw T-shirts, stickers and advertisements. New movies, series, books, comics and games have done a lot to fuel this surge of relevance, but I can’t help but think that the rise of star wars Day indicated that it was going to happen in one form or another anyway. The timeless appeal of star wars matched with the passion of its fans is a guarantee.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer and historian at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a star wars and Indiana Jones fan.
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