While most of us can’t imagine a world without the tooth fairy, she didn’t actually grace us with her presence until the early 1900s… at least, not in her current form. And depending where in the world you are, the “tooth fairy” is likely unrecognizable to those of us who grew up waking up the morning after losing a tooth to find a quarter under our pillow.
In fact, it would appear that our own nocturnal visitor’s origins have been influenced by rituals and superstitions held all over the world, many of which date back hundreds of years.
The Wicked Witch(es) of the West
In many western cultures, it was believed for centuries that witches would use everything from hair to clothing to—you guessed it—teeth to cast spells and place curses on you and your family. Families would bury their children’s lost baby teeth in the gardens or fields surrounding their homes to prevent the local witches from finding them and doing their dastardly deeds to their loved ones.
The Giving… Teeth?
With time, the fear of witches and their curses died out, yet the tradition of burying children’s lost teeth carried on. It was then believed that teeth were almost like metaphorical seeds, and in burying them, new teeth would grow in strong—just like the trees that grew around the buried baby teeth. And like trees, these teeth would continue to grow stronger throughout the child’s entire life. As towns and villages grew more urban, however, people began burying the teeth in pots and planters, and eventually these baby teeth were placed under children’s pillows.
Some Fairies Have Tales
One theory behind the mythology of the tooth fairy lies in stories told around the world of kindly rats and mice who also trade children their baby teeth for little gifts. In Spain, a little mouse named Ratoncito Perez puts coins or candy under a child’s pillow in exchange for his or her tooth. In France, there’s a story of a mouse hired by a good queen to defeat an evil king, which the mouse does by knocking out all of the king’s teeth as he sleeps. In many other countries, children toss their lost baby teeth into a mouse or rat hole or even feed their teeth to mice and rats in hopes that the rodents will then bring them strong, sharp teeth.
Worldwide Rite of Passage
Of course, we all know what happened next… at least as far as the West is concerned. In Ireland and Scotland, the bartering mouse became a white fairy. And in America and other similar cultures, a kind fairy comes in the middle of the night and exchanges baby teeth for cash (and sometimes candy or other treats). What she wants with all those teeth remains a mystery, but as long as we receive payment, we’re content with her nocturnal visits. Whatever you choose to believe (or teach your children), it is clear that the loss of baby teeth is marked as an important rite of passage all over the world. From Afghanistan to Egypt to Lithuania, cultures across the globe have established traditions to mark the loss of children’s first teeth and elect to recognize this experience as an important step in “growing up.”