CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)



Tooth fairy traditions probably hark back to the ancients, who believed that hair, nail clippings and lost teeth remained linked to the owner even after being separated from the body.

American children today practice the ritual of hiding lost teeth under pillows – and finding money there the next morning – but the origin of the custom is elusive.

Voodoo artists – and they still exist – say you don’t need to touch a person to inflict damage; it’s quite enough to stomp on a missing molar (or nail clippings, I suppose, or locks of hair) and let contagious magic do the rest, according to Ted Tulega in the reference book Curious Customs.

People all over the world traditionally have hidden lost body parts, including baby teeth, lest they fall into the wrong hands and cause a peck o’ trouble, he said.

The tooth fairy differs from the old practices, and children today expect the tooth to be found by a good magician and not an evil one. They also expect a fair exchange in money. The sum was $2 a week or so ago when Samantha lost her first tooth. She reminded her parents that the tooth fairy is a game – a game she wanted to play – because $2 is a lot of money in her 5-year-old mind.

The tooth fairy is an example of American culture transforming a fearful superstition into a cheerful business transaction, Tulega opines.

(By the way, I have a collection of folklore books, but not this one, which folks at Lee County Library found for me. These unsung heroes have a remarkable way of locating material on any subject, whether whimsical or serious.)

But back to lost or hidden teeth … A query on my voice mail from Jim High – not Sam’s experience – sent me looking for references to the tooth fairy. I played this game in childhood, with my children and now with grandchildren, but I hadn’t the foggiest notion as to its meaning or origin. (I’m grateful to have friends who wonder about such subjects because it gives me reason to wander through stacks of delightful reference books.)

The tooth fairy ritual probably began in ancient times and then went through changes in Europe, and particularly in Germany, before arriving in America, Tulega allows.

A German tradition involved putting a lost tooth in a mouse or rat hole, according to the folk belief that when a new tooth grew in, it would have the qualities of the teeth of the animal that found it. Hence rodents, world-class chompers, were creatures of choice.

Tulega further cites the American touch of mixing the “tooth rat” with the more beneficent and agreeable tooth fairy.

Simon Bronner in American Children’s Folklore, published in the 1980s with a bibliography as long as the text, says the tooth fairy is one of many rituals and customs that involve material gain or provide acceptable expressions of aggression for children.

Vergilius Ferm, in Lightning Never Strikes Twice: If You Own A Featherbed, cites the loss of a tooth by children or adults as bringing luck when placed under a pillow, and money for children an extension of the practice. Teeth set wide apart promise a person prosperity and happiness, and front teeth with gaps between them mean he or she will be a wanderer.

Zolar’s Encyclopedia Of Omens, Signs and Superstitions cites similar tooth fairy customs, but says the first lost molar should be thrown on a fire to burn any evil that may be hiding in the child’s body. Being born with teeth is an ill omen – and so is cutting teeth in an unusual pattern such as molars first.

And another Zolar warning – you will get a toothache if you eat while a funeral bell is tolling.

Phyllis Harper is Daily Journal feature editor.

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