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William Tell Day

Swiss folk hero William Tell, who supposedly shot an apple off his son's head with a crossbow on today's date in 1307, is honored today with William Tell Day. Tell isn't believed to have been real, but his influence is wide nonetheless, and he has become a symbol of political and individual freedom, and a father figure of the Swiss people.

According to legend, Tell was a farmer and famous hunter from the municipality of Bürglen, in Uri, Switzerland. One day he came with his son through the market square at Altdorf. Bailiff Gessler, an agent of the Habsburg duke in Austria, had put a Habsurg hat on a pole there and announced that everyone passing by had to uncover their heads. After Tell refused to take off his hat, Gessler ordered an apple to be placed on Tell's son's head and said that if Tell didn't shoot it off at a distance of 120 paces, he and his son would be put to death. Tell shot the apple and his son was saved.

Afterward, Gessler asked him, "Your life is now safe, but kindly tell me why I saw you putting a second arrow inside your jacket?" William Tell responded: "If my first arrow had killed my son, I would have shot the second at you, and I would not have missed." Gessler then ordered Tell to be bound and carried to Lake Lucerne, to be put on a boat and sent to a dungeon in a castle in Küssnacht. On the way, a strong wind swept up. Tell was the only one with the strength to bring the boat to shore, and when he made it there, he jumped off and kicked the boat back to sea.

Tell traveled to Hohle Gasse, a sunken road that led to Küssnacht, and hid behind a tree, waiting for Gessler to arrive. When Gessler appeared, Tell shot him with the second arrow. At a forest meadow now known as Rütli, Tell met with three other men who had been wronged by Gessler or other Habsburgs. They took an oath: "To assist each other with aid and every counsel and every favor, with person and goods, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict on them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods." After they took their oath, bonfires were lit on the top of mountaintops to signal the start of a war of national liberation.

Although William Tell almost certainly did not exist, he has had a broad influence on Swiss national identity. November 18th was the date that his act of defiance—refusing to take off his hat—set off a chain of events that led to national liberation for the Swiss people. That is why William Tell Day takes place today!

How to Observe William Tell Day

Some ways you could celebrate the day and honor William Tell include:

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