The tooth fairy appears to by a uniquely American legend, with origins in European traditions.
The tooth fairy comes when a child has lost a tooth, commonly in the middle of the night. The tooth is left under their pillow, so that the tooth fairy can take it. A treat or money is left under the pillow in place of the tooth.
One tradition in England held that if a child’s tooth fell out, that child must drop it into a fire, to avoid having to look for it after death, and this may be the origin of the importance of a lost tooth. This tale was handed down during the Middle Ages to smaller children during the teething stage.
The addition of fire into the story may have conjured up images of witchcraft. Suspected witches were often burned, because people believed money appeared after they threw articles into fire. From this myth comes the importance of keeping a tooth. When a witch burned a piece of hair, clothing or teeth from a person, she supposedly obtained power over them. Parents may have prompted children into keeping teeth or burning the teeth themselves in order to keep themselves free of demon possession.
Centuries ago, in Europe it was a common practice when a child’s baby tooth fell out to bury it in the ground. The tooth was likely buried in the garden or surrounding field. It was done so that a permanent tooth would grow in its place. The other reason for this ritual was the superstition that if a witch got a hold of the tooth, a curse could be placed on the child (as with fingernail clippings and/or hair). By burying their children’s teeth, this unfortunate curse was prevented from happening.
As people migrated to America, many of the same beliefs and superstitions followed them. However, since most of the people now found themselves living in towns and cities, bare land wasn’t as plentiful. They began placing the teeth in small flowerpots, or planter boxes. Eventually this rite too changed, and the fallen out tooth was placed under a child’s pillow, where the parents switched the tooth (always in the middle of the night) for a treat or money.
Even more interesting is the fact that Vikings had a “tooth fee,” or a fee that was given to children upon the use of a tooth. The baby teeth were later strung to make jewelry, some people claim. This old legend is surrounded in mystery. Alongside it is the superstition in early Viking days that children’s articles and pieces contained great power. Having an article of a child, or a child in your possession was supposed to bring power and luck in battle.
Other World Traditions
- In many parts of the world it’s the tooth mouse that leaves treats behind for kids who’ve lost their baby teeth.
- Australian mothers were said to crush their children’s baby teeth and eat the powder.
- In some parts of the world, a child’s baby tooth would be placed in nests where rats or snakes were known to live because people believed evil witches disliked those animals and wouldn’t go near them.
- In many parts of the world, parents placed their children’s teeth in mouse nests. They thought that would result in a new tooth growing in the lost tooth’s place, just as a mouse’s lost teeth somehow grew again.
- In other parts of the world, mothers hid their children’s teeth from animals because, they believed, if an animal found the tooth, a tooth like that animal’s would grow in the mouth of the child.