A Tooth Truth: The history beyond the Tooth Fairy

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A friend of mine posted a short video on Facebook of her son proudly pulling his tooth out in hopes of ‘getting lots of money’ in trade for his freshly plucked tooth that night from the tooth fairy. Of course, your first reaction is ‘awe’ but this got me thinking about the mythos behind some tiny fairy flying into a child’s room at night and the weird transaction of trading a recently pulled tooth for cash. The tooth fairy may be just a made-up figure whose folklore leads you to believe that when a child loses his/her baby teeth, they are to put the tooth under their pillow (or if you’re a smart parent on the bedside table so you don’t have to sneak under their pillow at night like I had to do so many times) for the tooth fairy to come while they are asleep and buy their tooth from them while they sleep. And though there is no federal law prohibiting the buying or selling of a body part, this is definitely one of the most bizarre financial transactions that I can think of. One thing that we modern-day Americans rarely even think about, is where in the world did this story originate and whether the Tooth Fairy is actually practiced in many places throughout the world. It is obviously a tradition that has been around for a very long time, so what’s the story morning glory?

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While children excitingly look forward to the prospect of the tooth being traded for money, many parents around the world use the transaction to help comfort the child for the loss of their tooth. The prospect of financial gain is worth the fear and pain that results from the removal of the tooth. Since the Tooth Fairy is in the same boat as other gift giving imaginary characters like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, this belief doesn’t last for long. So we know that Santa Claus was based on a real person (or a collaboration of the lore behind many people as some researchers say) and the Easter Bunny’s history can be traced back to the 1700s where German immigrants brought the tradition of the Easter hare or Osterhase/Oschter Haws (the Easter Hare was depicted as a figure who brought ‘Easter Eggs’ as gifts to the good little children at the beginning of the Easter season aka Eastertide) to America; but where in the world does a tooth trading fairy come from? In Northern Europe, the tradition of tand-fé or ‘tooth fee’ is paid when a child loses their first tooth. This tradition has been documented in ancient writings and was even documented in the ancient collection of Old Norse literary works called “Eddas”. During the Middle Ages, the superstitions regarding children’s teeth changed. In England, it was said that the children were instructed to take their baby teeth and burn them in order to save them from having to endlessly search for them in the afterlife. They were also told to burn their teeth due to a fear that if a witch got a hold of one of your teeth, they could gain power over you. In Norse culture, however, it was the Vikings who were one of the first to initially ‘pay’ their children for their teeth. They would purchase the children’s teeth and other items belonging to the children. These items were believed to bring good luck in battle. They even hung the children’s teeth on a string around their necks.

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So I know that this still doesn’t explain the modern interpretation of the tiny Tinkerbell-like Tooth Fairy with wings and a magic wand that would bring you money for your tooth at night. While Santa Claus has a very exact description and the Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphic bunny (normally wearing clothes), the Tooth Fairy doesn’t have an exact description. Though we know that it definitely doesn’t look like the Rock (as he actually starred in a 2010 fantasy comedy movie titled Tooth Fairy, there is no definitive description for us to properly interpret. So while American parents dish out an average of $5.70 a tooth (yes you read that right) that is placed under their pillow; kids in other countries have much more to their Tooth Fairy story.

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While Americans (as well as Australia, Denmark, and England) have an ancient European influenced story of a ‘tooth fairy’ visiting in the middle of the night to trade a coin for our lost tooth; in Spain, children put their teeth also put their lost tooth into a pillow. The only difference is that they are not visited by a sweet little fairy, they are visited by a little mouse named Ratoncito Perez that will leave them a coin or a piece of candy. And no I am not joking because Colombian children have a similar tradition. Colombian children place their teeth under their pillow but a mouse named El Ratón Miguelito takes care of the tooth – money transaction. Rats and teeth seem to be a common trend because, in France, children put their teeth under their pillows but they are visited by le petite souris (yes that translates to ‘the small mouse‘) comes and takes the tooth and gives them a small gift. The trend of rodents and teeth continues in Russia where we find children putting their lost teeth inside of mouse holes in hopes that the mouse will ‘bring them a good tooth to replace their lost tooth’ while children in Sri Lanka stand outside of their house, close their eyes and call for another rodent to come and take their tooth and bring them a new one. Sri Lankan kids throw their tooth on top of their roof after saying, “Squirrel, squirrel, take this tooth and bring me a new one.” After they go back inside, they can then open their eyes.

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In some Asian countries (specifically China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam) the kids don’t place their teeth under a pillow for money. The kids who lose their teeth, historically, throw their bottom teeth on the roof of their house, while they throw the teeth from the top row will be placed on the floor, basement or under the floorboards. This tradition stems from the tooth-losing kid wanting their new tooth to grow correctly towards the tooth they lost. Throwing teeth sound weird to you? Haitian children also have a tradition of throwing their teeth on the roof where they ask for a rat to bring them a good tooth in return for their old baby tooth. While some Indian children follow the same tradition of throwing top teeth down and bottom teeth up, some Indian children have the tradition of asking a sparrow to bring them a beautiful new tooth. Some kids in Korea don’t throw their teeth on the roof for a sparrow, they sing a little song to another bird entirely. They sing, “Blackbird, blackbird, my old tooth I give to you. Bring me a new tooth.” Okay, I didn’t say the song was super catchy or inventive but it is a traditional song none-the-less. While some children in some believe the birds will bring them a bright shiny tooth, children in Nepal are slightly protective of their teeth. They believe that if a bird sees or eats their lost tooth, then a new one won’t grow in its place. They try to bury the tooth before a bird can see it and in a place that it can never be found or eaten. While these birds come to swoop down to get the tooth, the Cherokee Indian tribe’s children run around the house with their lost tooth, throw it on the roof while reciting the lines “beaver, put a new tooth in my jaw” four times.

It would appear that Haiti and Asia aren’t the only places in the world that have a tradition of throwing teeth. In a tradition that can date back to the 13th century, kids in India and portions of the Middle Eastern countries of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt are encouraged to throw their teeth into the sky. This common trend in a lot of middle-eastern countries, find kids wrapping their teeth in a tissue and throwing the tooth towards the sun, asking for it to take their old buffalo tooth and give them a bride’s tooth. They are essentially asking for a brighter, more beautiful smile.

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As strange as it may sound, in ancient Abyssinia, the children would throw their lost tooth to the howling hyena and ask them to bring them strong teeth. Even stranger still, let’s go back to parts of Asia where in Central Asia (specifically Mongolia), where lost teeth are placed in some sort of animal fat and fed to their dog. No matter how strange this sounds, the thought behind it is that they hope that their new tooth/teeth will grow to be as strong as a dog’s tooth/teeth. The trend of feeding teeth to the dog is also found in the Shuswap and Yupik Indian tribes where children would mix their teeth with some meat and feed it to their dog with the same hope as the Mongolian children. Now let’s suppose the family didn’t have a dog? Well, they would bury it under a tree so that the new tooth would have strong roots. The tradition of burying the tooth under a tree is similar to the Dene Yellowknives American Indian tribe where the mother or grandmother of the child that has lost his/her tooth and place it in a tree will take the tooth and then place it in a tree for the family to come to dance a traditional dance around the tree in hopes that the tooth grows in as straight as the tree has grown.

Speaking of burying your teeth. In Turkey, parents believe that the lost tooth carries with it more bearing than just a yearning to have a great smile. They believe that that tooth holds the power to help wield the future of that child. If the child (or the parent) wants to grow up to become a famous soccer star; well they would bury the tooth at the soccer field. Say the child should grow up to become a doctor? Then they would bury the tooth at the medical school. And lastly, children in Malaysia bury their teeth for completely different reasons. They believe that since we are from the earth and that tooth was a part of them, we should return the tooth to the earth.

Whether we throw our teeth in the river at sunset for good luck like kids in Pakistan or keep our teeth as a souvenir like the kids in Lithuania; we all have traditions regarding our pearly whites that some might view as bizarre. So we Americans should remember that the next time your kid loses a tooth and you slide that crisp $5 bill under your child’s pillow after carefully remove that baby tooth–think about the traditions from other places in the world. Maybe introduce another tradition to your kids or continue our Tooth Fairy tradition. Either way, I think that making our children more comfortable with the tooth-loss process is an important part of growing up. Because after all, losing a tooth isn’t exactly the most relaxing thing in the world but it is definitely something that every child in the world has to go through.

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Images:

Featured image – Smiling Brown haired girl holding up the baby tooth she lost by msspider66 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/msspider66/2239856567/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16927570

Tooth Fairy movie poster attributed to Source, Fair Use.

Viking Warrior at Slavic and Wiking Festival in Wolin by Jakub T. Jankiewicz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71430246

The Tooth Fairy as drawn by a five-year-old girl from Illinois by Eden – Tooth Fairy, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19704749

Raton Perez statue by Jlordovas – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5693917

Passer domesticus, the type species Passeridae by Alvesgaspar (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6852105

Mauritanian Woman by Ferdinand Reus – A big smile., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3220275

A seven-year-old boy lost a deciduous tooth by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)Email the author: David R. TribbleAlso see my personal gallery at Google Photos – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9470100



Reference: 

Throw Your Tooth on the Roof by Selby B. Beeler

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