If you’re wondering how and when Star Wars fans began exchanging “May the Fourth” greetings every May 4, you can blame Canada. The origins of Star Wars Day can be traced back to 2011, when a handful of Toronto comedians turned the geeky pun into a full-blown event inside the now-defunct Toronto Underground Cinema. And since Disney’s ownership of all things a galaxy far, far away in 2012, the fan-made day has become an actual sponsored holiday.
Before 2011, there were few mentions of May 4 as a pun for “May the force be with you.” A common misconception was that the original Star Wars film was released on May 4, 1977, which is untrue; it was released a few weeks later on May 25. On May 4, 1979, two years after Star Wars became a phenomenon, Britain’s Conservative Party commemorated the election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with an ad in the London Evening News, which read: “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations.”
After 1979, “May the Fourth” puns were few and far between; author and astrophysicist Jeanne Cavelos used it in her 1999 book The Science of Star Wars. Almost a decade later in 2008, some Star Wars fan groups on Facebook used the pun as an in-joke. Then, in 2011, YouTube comedian Sean Ward and Alice Quinn organized the first “real” Star Wars Day on the punny date, May 4.
“It wasn’t official so much as it was the first organized event,” Ward told Inverse in a 2016 interview. “What we did was actually put on an event that people could come to, and fast forward this many years later and it’s an international thing that people look forward to as an annual tradition.”
The event took place in the now-shuttered Toronto Underground Cinema, a local attraction that lived near Toronto’s Chinatown and Alexandra Park with a popular reputation for showcasing B-movies and sci-fi flicks. For the inaugural Star Wars Day, the still-active website said the event “featured a collection of Star Wars parodies and fan films on the big screen” along with a costume contest, a trivia show, and special guests.
After Disney took hold of George Lucas’s cinematic universe, “May the Fourth” has become a sanctioned day in Disney’s marketing calendar. Lucasfilm and Disney take to social media to celebrate #MaytheFourth and #StarWarsDay, including charity drives for Force for Change. For 2018, May the Fourth was the day tickets for Solo: A Star Wars Story went on sale.
“It was much more of a wild west thing,” Ward recalled about that first event. “If we could’ve had any sort of official sanction from Lucasfilm we would have, but just us as individuals we did what we could to do something that sounded like fun.” Ward added that Star Wars Day was a special thing especially for Toronto, for proud natives to claim an opportunity “to say the first one happened there.”
Today, Ward is still involved with the original Star Wars Day organizers. He will be present as a costume judge at Star Wars Day 2018, at a new venue within 20 minutes of walking distance of the original theater. Fittingly, the Toronto cinema where Star Wars Day was born is now in use as a church.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters May 25.