For a child, losing a tooth is a rite of passage and also a way to score some cash from the beloved tooth fairy. The adorable little fairy, with glittering wings, flies into the child’s room at night and gently retrieves the lost tooth from under the pillow where the child has left it. She leaves behind quarters, half dollars and even sometimes whole dollars! Oh what joy it is to be a child.
Unfortunately, we, the adults, know the dream-crushing truth. This is how the tooth fairy visit really goes: we, the parents, wait, and wait, and wait until the child has developed a regular pattern of breathing, signifying that the child is actually asleep. Then we quietly grope around in the child’s darkened room and hope we don’t wake him or her as we go pillow diving for the disembodied tooth. We leave behind whatever pocket change or one dollar bills that we have in our wallets and we excitedly wait for our child to find their prize in the morning. This is what we know. However, most of us don’t know how this beautiful, and sort of odd, myth wriggled its way into our lives. Sure, we know our parents did the same thing for us, but they didn’t invent it. So, where did it come from?
The Origins of The Tooth Fairy
Before we can really discover the roots of the American tooth fairy, we have to explore similar traditions and myths from other countries from which America’s beloved fairy is an amalgamation.
European countries have a long history of fairy myths. One well-known myth is that of cleaning fairies who perform domestic duties for humans. Often times, the people would leave them goodies in secret. One of the best-known fairies of old Scottish myth is called the “Brownie.” A newer example of this fairy would be Dobby, the house elf, from Harry Potter.
In parts of France, and in many Spanish speaking countries, the tooth fairy comes in the form of a rat or a mouse. The tooth is offered to the rodent as a sacrifice in hopes that the child’s new tooth will grow in as strong as that of the rodent’s.
European historians also state that in some areas steeped in superstition, children would bury, burn or throw their teeth up on the roof. An old legend stated that if a witch got a hold of a piece of a person (in this case, the child’d tooth) she would be able to control them. Additionally, the act of burying the tooth was symbolic and supposed to bring good luck in the growth of the child’s new tooth.
Now, if we put it all together, we have the modern-day, American tooth fairy. A legendarily unattractive fairy, sprinkled with some Disney beauty and magic, sneaks into your child’s room and takes his/her tooth which is “buried” under their pillow. Basically, the tooth fairy was created in a way similar to the way in which we dream. When we sleep, our subconscious pulls pieces of our lives, memories and feelings together into a, sometimes hard to understand, amalgamated picture. Our collective imagination has done the same with the tooth fairy.