It’s not even that good a play on words: May the Fourth Be With You. That’s all it takes to have a holiday? A pun?
The joke at least has been around almost as long as Star Wars itself; official Star Wars doctrine traces the etymology to an ad congratulating Margaret Thatcher on the day she won the election to become Prime Minister of Britain in 1979, just two years after the first movie premiered. It's weird enough that Official Star Wars—which is to say, the Walt Disney Company, that most transnational of transnational culture-production oligopolies—has anything at all to say about Star Wars Day. Unlike the officially sanctioned Star Wars Celebration conventions, May 4th is a grassroots phenomenon. Its elevation to informal holiday didn’t come until the mid to late 2000s, and now it’s a day of branded-and-pegged sales of paraphernalia, festival showings of movies, Bundt cakes made to look like Sarlaccs in the Great Pit of Carkoon, and SEO-driven, barely lukewarm (hah, Luke warm) takes from generally respectable digital journalism outlets. So bah, humbug! Or however you say that in the binary language of moisture vaporators.
Except…I was at the movies watching a different Disney movie last weekend—Avengers: Infinity War—and saw, at the end of the trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story, that its opening day is May 25. And OK, my heartstrings did a thing. Because May 25 is the day Star Wars opened in 1977. In fact, the first six movies all opened on or around that day. The Disney-era saga films (Force Awakens and Last Jedi) both opened around Christmas, but for me, Star Wars happens in mid-spring.
Just not May the Fourth. And I think this may be important.
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See, a long time ago on a continent far, far away, a great meeting took place. In the year 325, beginning on May 20—there are no accidents—Constantine, emperor of the remnants of Rome, called roughly 300 Christian bishops to the town of Nicea, about 85 miles southeast of Istanbul. The then-new religion was already having something of a crisis. The faithful disagreed about the exact nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and God. They were using different prayers and creeds. And they weren’t sure when Easter was.
Christians had been fighting about Easter since at least the 150s, because even though the holiday celebrates Christ’s Resurrection, its origins go back much further. The holiday itself descends from the Jewish Pesach, Passover. Some Christians connected Christ to the sacrificial Paschal Lamb and celebrated Easter after Passover, whatever day of the week that fell upon. Others wanted it on a Sunday, no matter what.
In this the Jews and Christians were like pretty much every culture on Earth that has celebrated the vernal equinox around this time of year—birth and rebirth, spring from winter. That’s the deal with all the rabbits and eggs. The Babylonian fertility goddess Astara gave the holiday its name. All those resurrection myths—Osiris, or Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring and the harvest who spends part of the year underground with Hades and part above? It’s this, y’all.
Anyway. The Council of Nicea placed Easter firmly on a Sunday, solving the problem forever, except for like a thousand more years of fighting about it across Christendom. So after the Solo trailer but before Avengers I was in full-on synod mode. Because I can’t think of anything more emblematic of a new religion coalescing than an argument about when to put a holiday.
Look, maybe you’ve been from one end of this galaxy to the other and nothing convinces you that some all-powerful Force controls your destiny. I get it. This isn’t my church, either—I’m mostly unreligious, though I’ll allow that a liturgy that begins “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise” puts me in a spiritual frame, as it did in my more devout childhood. I’m not being silly, and I don’t mean to start any blasphemous rumors: We all find comfort and order in these kind of resonances.
Still, though, when you see adults trying, or pretending to try, to learn lightsaber combat, it seems ironic at best, silly at worst. Perhaps. I don’t know anyone in the real world who can wield the Force like a Jedi, but I don’t know anyone who can part a sea or turn water into wine, either. I do know people who believe in the ideas behind those superpowers, and who’ve gotten through tough times by listening to and thinking on the words of those stories.
There’s no equating sci-fi fandom to any faith held by millions or billions of people around the world. At least, not today. But all those faiths began somewhere. They all had to decide what unified them—what prayers to say, what tenets to hold, what values they shared…and when to celebrate their holidays.