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Legends of the tooth fairy

June 1, 2006
Have you ever spent time thinking about the tooth fairy? I’m serious ..
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Have you ever spent time thinking about the tooth fairy? I’m serious ... have you ever really thought about the whole tooth fairy mystique? After all, a child losing a deciduous tooth is a very normal, biologic function. But putting it under a pillow at night? Waking up to treasure? What do we really know about how tooth fairy traditions came about? We all know the story - a fairy somehow flies into a locked house and exchanges the tooth from under a child’s sleeping head for money or a gift. But why? Are baby teeth valuable? How is she able to fly while carrying all those teeth and all that money? How does she do all the currency conversions? The cost of giving all that treasure must be enormous! What is her unlimited funding source? Does she have a day job, or does she sell the teeth? Is there just one fairy like Santa Claus, or are there many? How does she know a child has lost a tooth, and how does she get into the house? What does she do with all those teeth she picks up? Where did these rituals come from?

Do all children in the world have the same traditions? Inquiring minds need to know!

Fairy folklore is all over the Internet, complete with imaginative drawings of what fairies might look like. There are even some well-meaning people who truly believe fairies exist, and others whom you can pay to send a child a letter from the tooth fairy or who will sell you tooth fairy merchandise. But I think that we, and previous generations of parents who have had to stumble bleary-eyed into their child’s room at night to find that tiny tooth, can safely claim that the tooth fairy is a childhood myth. The endearing and well-known tooth fairy traditions are firmly entrenched in American folklore and apparently have been since the early 1900s. Where did they originate?

Tossing it up on the roof

As with many American traditions, the tooth fairy has roots in European folklore. Historians say that the tradition of burying a lost tooth in the garden or surrounding field was done in hopes that the permanent tooth could then grow in the child’s mouth to take its place. This tradition was also steeped in superstition because of the belief that if a witch got hold of the tooth, a curse could be placed on the child or the tooth-holder could have power over the child. (Some more ancient European traditions even called for throwing the baby tooth into the fire to ensure a child was free from any magical intervention.) The tradition of burying the tooth changed because when cities began to grow, teeth were planted in flower pots or planter boxes as open space dwindled. The next progression of the story is that the dirt was done away with all together and the tooth was “buried” under a pillow. Who comes for the tooth? Well, it depends on where you live.

In England, Canada, and Australia, the tooth fairy tradition is the same as ours. In Denmark, the tooth fairy has the name “Tandfeen,” and leaves money behind. The idea of relationships as well as financial exchanges between people and benevolent fairies has been around for many years, especially in English literature. But fairies are not the only collector of baby teeth in the world.

In France, the “buried” tooth under the pillow is collected by “La Petite Souris,” a little mouse who will exchange the tooth for money or candies. In Spain, it is the mouse named Ratoncito Perez who collects the tooth and leaves treasure. In Argentina, children put their tooth in a glass of water. El Ratoncito comes to drink the water, takes the tooth, and leaves treasure behind in the glass. In Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, and Venezuela, El Ratón, the magic mouse, has the honors. Some children chant, “Rat, rat, rat. I give you a beautiful tooth. Send me back an old tooth,“ hoping to trick the rat into giving the child what he/she really wants. In South Africa, the tooth is placed in a slipper and a mouse takes it and leaves a gift in its place. In some areas of Greece, a mouse also takes the tooth. In other areas, the tooth is not buried but thrown up on the roof of the house for a pig to take. A rhyme is chanted, which loosely translates: “Take sow my tooth and give me an iron one so that I can chew rusks.”

Throwing the tooth on the roof seems sort of odd compared to our way of doing things, but it is how most children in the world dispose of their baby or “milk” teeth. In India, the tooth is thrown on the roof in hopes that a sparrow will bring a new one. In parts of Africa, many children throw an upper tooth on the roof and bury a lower one in the ground. Some families believe that if a lizard sees the tooth, a new one will not grow in its place. Sri Lankan children throw the tooth on the roof and hope a squirrel will come and get it. In East Asia, children throw a lower tooth on the roof and an upper one is buried, thrown down on the ground, or hidden under the bed. The thought is that the new tooth will grow toward the old one and come in straight. A wish is often made as the child throws the tooth.

Other animals - including rabbits and birds - are involved with tooth exchange. Brazilian children throw the tooth outside and believe birds will come to take it, but only if it is clean. A dirty tooth is left behind and the child gets no treasure, which is great encouragement for good oral hygiene! Children in El Salvador think a rabbit comes to get the tooth. Some Alaskan tribes feed the baby tooth to another animal, such as a dog, and ask for the tooth to be replaced.

Some Central American countries make jewelry out of the teeth for their child to wear, which may be from an ancient Viking tradition. Historians say that in those days it was believed that children’s articles were powerful and lucky, and were often carried in battle. A “tooth fee” was paid to children so the adult could have the use of a baby tooth, and the tooth was often made into jewelry.

Inflation seems to have crept into the tooth fairy’s economy as the price of a tooth seems to be going up. In the 1940s, a dime was the going rate. In the 1950s, American children reported getting a “shiny, new quarter” for their lost baby teeth, while in the 1960s, the going rate was usually a Kennedy half dollar. In the 1970s and 1980s, a dollar was the average exchange fee. In the 1990s and 2000s, the price has varied from one to five dollars, often depending on which tooth was lost. Historically, the first lost tooth seems to bring the most income to a child in the United States.

The tooth fairy is a very big deal to a young child. The anticipation is great for kindergartners and first graders as they anxiously await the day when they can announce to the class that they have lost a tooth, show off the space, and put a sticker on the lost tooth chart in class. A huge smile appears on the face of an impatient 6-year-old when a hygienist can finally report, “I see a wiggler!” While it’s true that a piece of childhood may be lost with every lost tooth, it’s also fun to watch those new, permanent teeth grow in to take their proper place.

The tooth fairy and all of the other imaginary entities that carry off baby teeth are firmly a part of folklore and the heritage of many cultures. How fun it will be to share some of these other traditions with the children we watch over.

What the Tooth Fairy Does With All Those Teeth

(based on an unscientific study conducted on the tooth fairy experts-- kids!)

• Builds a castle up in the sky
• Throws them away
• Uses them for money in tooth fairy land
• Turns them into gas for her car
• Her horse eats them for treats
• Plants them in her garden and grows children
• Makes jewelry with them
• Turns them into seashells for fish to live in
• Makes sparkling clothes out of them
• Grinds them into fairy dust and sprinkles it on herself; that's the magic that makes her fly
• Gives them to elves and gnomes to turn into gems for the fairies
• I don't know
• Puts them into a museum