How the Internet made Star Wars Day bigger than ever

“May the Fourth be with you.”

This is the pun that has become synonymous with “Star Wars Day” around the country, as fans of the world’s most popular franchise gather to celebrate their beloved tale set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But the annual festivities of today aren’t the only reason Star Wars fans have to celebrate lately. Star Wars is bigger than ever. This is especially true after the announcement of The Force Awakens, the first in a line of upcoming sequels, as well the Internet-breaking trailer which came out of last month’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, Calif., not to mention the emerging details surrounding the spinoff film Rogue One.

Even aside from this year’s marketing blitz, May the Fourth is a day that holds a great deal of significance because of what it says about the importance of fan holidays, not just for Star Wars fans, but for members of larger fandoms in general.

May the Fourth is a day that holds a great deal of significance because of what it says about the importance of fan holidays.

Quartz’s Adam Epstein argues that Star Wars Day is “perhaps the most widely celebrated fictional holiday in all the world’s pseudo-holidays,” even moreso than “Seinfeld’s ‘Festivus’ and ‘Towel Day,’ in honor of late sci-fi author Douglas Adams.” According to Lucasfilm-sanctioned website StarWars.com, the day has roots in an ad taken out by England’s conservative party to congratulate Margaret Thatcher on her election to prime minister, which read “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations.”

However, other reports indicate that it didn’t really take off till 2011, when the Toronto Underground Cinema in Canada picked May the Fourth to hold a costume contest and film festival commemorating everybody’s favorite space opera.

What’s interesting, though, is that May the Fourth has essentially become a Disney-sanctioned event (having purchased the franchise from Lucasfilm in 2012), with their typically savvy sense of merchandising applied to Star Wars deals everywhere. While Star Wars never needed much help selling merchandise, May the Fourth gives retailers everywhere an excuse to get a boost on the back of George Lucas’ creation. It’s also worth mentioning that yesterday, Disney announced its stores will open at 12:01am on September 4 to begin selling merchandise from the new film.

However, May the Fourth isn’t just about the merchandise. With the added attention surrounding the saga right now, it seems as if everyone wants a piece, from athletes to politicians. This year’s Star Wars Day has already seen not only the usual nationwide events, but also the unveiling of Lego’s record-breaking Millennium Falcon replica; a new trailer for the animated TV show, Star Wars: Rebels; a list of the most-streamed Star Wars playlists (courtesy of Spotify); a tweet from the International Space Station, where several astronauts are watching Star Wars in space; and most exciting of all, new cast details from an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot, set to accompany this month’s issue of Vanity Fair.

With the monetary and cultural value of Star Wars beginning to skyrocket again, the real significance of May the Fourth is what it says about the fans. By acknowledging that Star Wars Day is a real thing, America has validated the entire existence of Star Wars fandom.

By acknowledging that Star Wars Day is a real thing, America has validated the entire existence of Star Wars fandom.

We’ve seen this happen before, though never on quite the same scale. Any true Mean Girls fan knows the importance of October 3. J.K. Rowling recently acknowledged that May 2 has special significance for Harry Potter fans, as the anniversary of the Battle of Hogwarts and an opportunity for her to apologize for killing certain characters. And it’s fitting that Epstein mentioned Festivus today, as Tumblr’s celebration of the event last December led to divisions between younger and older members of normally carefree fan communities.

Speaking of Tumblr, it’s on sites like that and Pinterest and the like where the future of fan holidays is really taking off. Star Wars Day is at its apex on the Internet, and with digital fandom becoming more powerful everyday, fan holidays are just the latest sign that “geeks” and “nerds” are the ones who really dictate today’s entertainment landscape. The irony of franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter is that while they are among the most popular properties of all time, it’s the diehard fans who continue to ensure that the rest of America never forgets about them.

Fan holidays also illustrate the changing nature of ownership in the digital age. In “The War for Star Wars,” Matt Singer argues that Star Wars fans feel that the franchise belongs more to them than it does to George Lucas, or Disney, for that matter. This isn’t just about fan fiction; it’s about who has spent the most hours pouring over a given universe. It’s about who has donated the most amount of time and money to keeping that universe alive. It’s about the strength an entire collective of fans can summon when they band together. 

As in the case of most rituals, the communal aspect of fan holidays is key. But unlike huddling around the Yuletide tree on Christmas morning, the reach of fan holidays is about more than physical space, thanks to the increased intensity in fandom provided on the Internet.

Fan holidays also illustrate the changing nature of ownership in the digital age.

Since many holidays are also religious in nature, it’s apt to compare the belief system of various fandoms with that of various faiths. In the age of the Internet, one could argue that fandom is the newest, most potent strain of religion. There are many different sects of it, but all fandoms are based off several core values—loyalty, respect, and the unwavering belief that fandom improves your life and makes the world a better place. 

Fan holidays may not be inherently spiritual in nature, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain faith-based subtext to them. (Besides, there are plenty of religions which don’t have a following anywhere near as big as Star Wars.)

In an op-ed for CNN, writer David Allan explicitly espouses his belief in Star Wars as a personal dogma. “Perhaps religious fervor is the closest experience to how I feel about Star Wars,” Allan writes. “The canon is deeply spiritual when one examines its themes, or more narrowly, the monk-ninja Jedi way of life. It’s also Abrahamic in its Old Testament dichotomy of good versus evil, dark side versus light. The mystical Force alone is a transcendental concept rooted in ancient parallels such as the Hindu prana, Hebrew rauh, Hawaiian mana and the qi of Chinese medicine and martial arts.”

Like Joseph Campbell, Allan argues that the reason Star Wars holds such power is that “it serves as a great spiritual myth,” with echoes of “Camelot, the Buddha, Native American folklore, the Bhagavad Gita, Goethe’s Faust, the Torah, Grimm’s fairy tales, Homer’s epics, Gilgamesh, [and] Jesus.”

May the Fourth is a “fan holiday,” but for all intents and purposes, it’s no less capable of being deeply felt and resonating across America (and even the world) than any “real” holiday. And though Star Wars may not be “real” in the literal sense, it is a very meaningful part of many people’s lives. With the success of Star Wars Day, we’re likely to see more and more fan holidays; while most probably won’t make it on a national calendar anytime soon, for legions of fans, they’re just as important as Thanksgiving or Easter.

So May the Fourth be with you, and may you keep the spirit of Star Wars alive in your heart, all year long. 

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Screengrab via Disney/YouTube

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.