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The unlikely origins of Star Wars Day and why it's now bigger than a single franchise

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May 1, 2020, 2:48 PM EDT (Updated)

I wouldn't blame you if you couldn't figure out what former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher might have to do with Star Wars Day, the fan-invented Star Wars holiday. It's an obscure bit of trivia, but it gets to the root of the original meaning of the holiday: puns.

The year was 1979 and Thatcher had just been elected to be Britain's first woman prime minister. Her colleagues took out an ad in the London Evening News and offered her a terrible pun to congratulate her on her victory by commemorating the auspicious date of the occasion. "May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations," it said.

It says a lot about the culture in 1979 that Star Wars was so mainstream that a pun about a line in a movie from two years prior would have enough cachet to congratulate the incoming prime minister. Back then, Star Wars was everywhere. It didn't even matter that Thatcher's conservative politics were emblematic of the Empire in the films.

That might be the earliest recorded instance of tying the day to the pun, and it's only gained more currency in the age of the internet and social media. With the advent of Twitter and Facebook, the holiday started trending and people would use the day as an excuse to talk about Star Wars. Then they'd begin observing the holiday as an excuse to mainline the movies at home and talk about that. Others use the day to cook Star Wars-based recipes, from Wookiee cookies to Rey's self-baking bread.

Personally, I always thought May 25th made more sense as a holiday for Star Wars, as it marks the anniversary of the film's original release. But apparently puns mean more than history in the land of social media.

Today, the holiday is still all of those things (and I'm glad it's gotten away from its roots of congratulating Margaret Thatcher), but it's something else, too.

Star Wars itself has gotten in on the holiday, as well. Most licensees of Star Wars merchandise offer discounts, specials, and sales to capitalize on the day.

More interesting are groups that use the day to talk about social justice issues. #TeachMeYouDid is a play on Yoda-speak, and it's a campaign I've participated in, where fans of Star Wars talk about the important role mentors and teachers played in their lives. It makes sense due to the strong influence of the teacher/student relationship found in the Star Wars films. This year, I spoke to a leader at the American Federation of Teachers about that very thing on the Full of Sith podcast.

Another group, HealthCareVoter.Org, is using the holiday as a way to talk about healthcare issues. May 4, 2018, is the one-year anniversary of the passage of the bill that would have ultimately gutted the American healthcare system. The Senate ended up defeating the measure, but advocates have likened the looming threat of this happening again as a Death Star, and they're asking fans on Star Wars Day to get in their social media X-wings and fly straight at it, declaring their support to improve healthcare rather than gut it.

Service and activism are no strangers to Star Wars Day among the fans of the franchise. The major Star Wars costuming clubs, the 501st, the Rebel Legion, the Mandalorian Mercs, and others often don their gear in the name of charity to visit Star Wars Day events.

But what does the future of Star Wars Day hold? The sky of fan creativity is the limit. It wouldn't surprise me to discover that on a May 4th in the future Belgian Star Wars fans actually built a real working replica of the Death Star.

With more movies coming out, though, fans will have to be more judicious with their Star Wars marathons. Gone are the days when one could comfortably do a Star Wars marathon in a day. Now you can barely get through a third of the movies. Five years from now, one will be hard-pressed to get through half that. I hope political activism and awareness take a more focused part of the holiday, though.

It's great to see #TeachMeYouDid and the Health Care Voter organization get in on it, but I would like to see fans of Star Wars really use the day as a way of raising awareness of the things in our real world and take action in a way Star Wars inspired. Star Wars is the moral compass for many of us who watch it; I'd like to see Star Wars Day point that compass north and have us do something more meaningful. And what can be more meaningful than celebrating Star Wars by using it to fight our own rebellions to make the world a better place?

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