We all know the tale. When a child loses a baby tooth, it should be carefully placed under their pillow before they go to sleep. Sometime during the night, the elusive tooth fairy will appear and exchange the tooth for a shiny gold coin (usually a £1 coin!).
Like Santa Claus and Old Father Time, these mythological beings are particularly kind to our children. But where does the tale come from? And why is it still such a cherished tradition today?
To celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day taking place on 28th February, let’s find out.
The Early Norse ‘Tand-Fe’
The earliest we can trace back the notion of the tooth fairy is to the Norse people of the tenth century. Soon to become Vikings, the writings of these people at the time were documented into the ‘Eddas,’ which stands as the earliest interpretation of Scandinavian and Northern European customs and traditions.
Within the Eddas is a tradition called Tand-Fe, which literally translates to tooth fee. When Nordic children lost their first tooth, their parents would hand them a coin. Their reason for doing so was that children’s teeth were said to bring good luck in battle.
So much so that some of the great Nordic warriors of the time would make their very own battle necklace out of kids’ teeth! Scary for more reasons than one.
Other Early European Interpretations of the Tooth Fairy
While the Nordic tradition is widely accepted as the birth of the concept of exchanging children’s teeth for a fee, it took a while for other European countries to cotton on. In England, sometime around the Middle Ages, children were encouraged to burn their baby teeth as soon as they fell out.
Why? To protect them from a hellish afterlife. Another reason for this seemingly over the top notion was to prevent their teeth from falling into the hands of witches, who could use them to conjure all sorts of demonic spirits and wreak havoc throughout the rest of their lives.
Fast forward to France in the eighteenth century, there was mention of a small animal collecting children’s teeth, known as La Petite Souris. In Spain and other Latin countries, the tooth collector is known as Ratoncito Perez. Ratoncito is usually portrayed as a mouse in recognition of the fact that rodents continue growing teeth throughout their lives.
In the Middle East, it’s commonplace for parents to toss a baby tooth up in the sky as an offering to Allah. In Asia – mainly South Korea – children are encouraged to throw their lost teeth up on the roof. This is due to Korea’s infatuation with the magpie, because if the bird finds a tooth, it’s said to bring that person good luck.
As you can see, there are many weird and wonderful things you can do with your kids’ baby teeth after they have fallen out. And our conceptualisation of the modern day tooth fairy is perhaps one of the easiest to get on board with, as we explain below.
The Birth of the Modern Tooth Fairy
In the past century or so, it has been accepted practice in the UK for children to leave their baby teeth for the tooth fairy to collect. The legendary tale has no doubt been taken from the many European stories that went before it and has morphed into a much-loved family tradition today.
The British tooth fairy is very much like its American counterpart. In 1908, the Chicago Tribune published a short article about the tooth fairy, announcing that American kids would receive a small monetary gift in exchange for the loss of their baby teeth. It’s thought that this article was the first time the modern concept was actually put into writing.
Of course, as our little ones drift off to sleep, it’s our responsibility as parents to carefully slip the tooth out from under the pillow, leaving a small amount of money in return. The creative among us may even leave a little note from the tooth fairy, but that’s entirely up to you!
The convention of leaving our kids some money under the pillow has grown so much that we now celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day on February 28th every year.
The Representation of the Tooth Fairy Today
While we all know that Santa Claus dresses in a big red coat and is proud of his long white beard, we’re far from certain about what the tooth fairy looks like. Is he/she a person dressed up as a fairy? Or perhaps a Tinkerbell-like creature that flutters in and out of the window without a peep?
Interestingly, the tooth fairy hasn’t been uniformly represented today, in spite of the tradition’s popularity. If we turn to popular culture, the tooth fairy has been represented in different ways. Dwayne Johnson played the tooth fairy in a 2010 film, while a 2006 movie by the same name featured an evil tooth fairy.
Ultimately, the tooth fairy is very much a figment of our imagination, and its representation is left to the creativity of our children!
On a Serious Note
While the legend of the tooth fairy is very much an old wives tale, it’s important that your kids look after their teeth. The transition from baby to adult teeth can be a painful one, so make sure they are brushing regularly when they wake up and before they go to bed.
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