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A national holiday? High five!

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Timeline showing high points in the history of the high five. (Graphic by Julie Onufrak)

In the wee hours of a spring day in 2002, three students at the University of Virginia were struck by inspiration. Spurred to act, they posted fliers, wrote an article for the school paper and recruited friends to their cause. Then, on the third Thursday in April, they skipped class and set up a booth on the university grounds. That day each passerby received a free lemonade--and a high five. National High Five Day, which marks its sixth anniversary on Thursday, April 17, was born.

“I’ve seen people get joy from it,” said Wynn Walent, 26, one of the founders. “It’s cheesy and corny, but it’s their one chance to give a high five without any guilt.” Walent said that his first high five--with his father after his beloved New York Mets won game six of the 1986 World Series—“made a huge impression” on him.

It seems he’s not the only one. While cities don’t mark the day with parades and dignitaries don’t gather before podiums to give speeches, National High Five Day has won some recognition. Two years ago, TV hosts Matt Lauer and Katie Couric marked the occasion by high-fiving on NBC’s “Today,” and in 2005 the deputy mayor of San Diego, Michael Zucchet, said “people can freely exchange high fives between all different genders, races, heights, and social classes” when he proclaimed National High Five Day in the city. Across the United States, many enthusiasts have organized festivities of their own and documented them on the Internet.

Governments of all sizes in the United States are not above noting a special day for responsible sponsors. There’s National Get Out of the Doghouse Day and National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day. Lynn Hijar-Moya, director of protocol at the San Diego mayor’s office, said her office has also issued a proclamation for World Laughter Day and has recently received an application for Global Love Day.

Like other mayoral offices around the country, San Diego regularly issues proclamations recognizing important events or highlighting someone in the community. Though there is no complex review process--Hijar-Moya say she runs questionable applications by several other people—the city tries to issue proclamations only to registered organizations.

“If it’s just some random person who decides that they want it to be Purple Day, we do some research on them,” she said. “Sometimes if it’s way too wacky, we prefer not to do it.”

For Walent and fellow founders Conor Lastowka and Sam Miotke, the goal of National High Five Day is modest. They encourage people to do as they did in 2002: put up a lemonade stand in a public place, play music, and deliver high fives with good cheer to passersby.

“If you find yourself getting carried away, it is best to simply extend your outstretched hand to the next stranger who walks by, and repeat until the high five is reciprocated,” according to their site, nationalhighfiveday.com. “Then move on. Repeat.”

“The high five is more casual than a handshake and friendlier than a head nod, and it has an infectious enthusiasm about it,” wrote High Five Day supporter Chris Radcliff, a 34-year-old software engineer from San Diego, in an e-mail message. Last year, Radcliff’s friend made him a T-shirt that said “Free High Fives Today!”

“There's just no way to give a high five without feeling better afterwards,” he said.

According to the founders’ research, the gesture originated with Mont Sleets, an African-American basketball player at Kentucky’s Murray State University in the early 1980s, who as a child greeted his father’s five Vietnam War-veteran buddies with “Hi, five!” David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., said the high five came into widespread use a decade later when American football players used it to replace the “Give me five!” or waist-level palm-slap.

But what started out as a mark of solidarity among black athletes has now been appropriated by white culture, according to Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a leading scholar on masculinity.

“Initially these sorts of things are done as a form of resistance,” he said. “We do this as a way to demarcate ourselves as different. White guys appropriate it to enhance their credibility, and soon it becomes so sanitized that it’s lost all meaning.”

Once, at a public event, Kimmel and his son, Zachary, were greeted by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor looked down at Zachary, put up his hand, and said, “High five!” “Why?” Kimmel said, recalling the chance meeting. “Because that will enhance his credibility with this kid. Guys think that these kinds of gestures and behaviors enhance their credibility as men.”

While not eager to link the high five to race in America, Walent said one of his most memorable high fives was with Julian Bond, a leader of the civil rights movement and chairman of the NAACP. “It’s absolutely a unifying thing,” he said. “That applies to race, creed, gender--and kids. High fives know no age limit.”

“Since it derives from the universal triumph display [where you extend and raise your arms to celebrate a victory], the high five has staying power,” wrote Givens of the Center for Nonverbal Studies. He pointed to the shared nature of the act that bonds two people together in a moment of excitement, as well as the satisfying “smack” of the palms.

“I think the high five will be around for a long time. It started here in the U.S., and is spreading around the world via the media, especially video,” Givens wrote.

As for Walent, his view for future National High Five Days is simple. He would like “to witness two people that I don’t know, who are complete strangers, walk by each other and know exactly what to do."

E-mail: jro2111@columbia.edu