Got a loose tooth? Hopefully you’re under 10. Leave it under your pillow and current odds are you’ll get more than $3 for it from the ol’ Molinator. El Raton. La Petite Souris.
You know, the tooth fairy.
For reasons which elude me, today — Feb. 28 — is Tooth Fairy Day. While the cash-rich fairy and pillow thing has long been the American tradition (as in Iceland and Portugal), ascribing special qualities to lost baby teeth predates our young culture. For centuries, mysticism has surrounded tooth loss. Some cultures considered it a vulnerability, burying children’s teeth so witches and evil spirits wouldn’t use tooth-powers for voodoo.
In the Middle Ages children were told to burn their baby teeth, lest they spend eternity searching for them in the afterlife. Others fed them to unfortunate animals. Tooth-loss lore gets pretty imaginative:
Vikings believed children’s teeth had magical power which gave the bearer battle advantages, so some Vikings bought as many as possible (is that where it began?), stringing them into necklaces worn in a fight.
Norway’s Tannfe may have begun even earlier. While it refers to a tooth fairy today, some sources suggest “tannfe” once simply referred to a gift, presumably in exchange for teeth.
In the East and as far back as the 13th century, kids in Asian cultures toss lost teeth in the air — toward the roof or into the sun, sometimes making a wish.
Perhaps it was Irish immigrants who brought us the fairy as they fled famine. One fairy story has it that while predictably making mischief, a lady leprechaun (named Anna Bogle in a children’s story) stumbled and lost a tooth in the forest. She still tries to replace it with children’s teeth, leaving a bit o’gold behind for their trouble.
Mice are quite popular, and another possible link to fairy tradition. Spain and Latin America have El Raton, a.k.a. El Ratoncito Perez, or El Raton de Los Dientes — a little tooth-collecting mouse. In some cases, that tooth is under a pillow (aha!). El Ratoncito might leave a small gift in exchange. In Argentina kids use a glass of water rather than a pillow. That may be more hygienic for the child, but not for Sr. Perez, who drinks it.
Swedish tooth fairy Tandfe also looks for teeth in a waterglass. Tandfe leaves a hefty payment, so the phrase “dressed to the teeth” — i.e., expensive or fancy — may derive from Swedish tradition. South African tooth fairies work similarly; just trade the glass for a slipper.
La Petite Souris is French for “the little mouse.” In the 17th century folk tale “La Bonne Petite Souris,” a baroness tells of a fairy-turned-mouse who defeated an evil king by hiding under the pillow and taking all the royal teeth. Now “the good little mouse” simply takes one at a time, leaving sweets as payment. Or perhaps that’s to encourage more tooth loss.
Why choose between mice and fairies? If you’re Italian, you can have both: Fairy Fatalina dei Denti has a trusty sidekick, Topolino dei Denti. Unless you’re Venetian, who are perhaps the most favored toothless tots with Saint Apollonia. The patron saint of teeth rides a chariot made of them, pulled by — you guessed it — mice. Those little nibblers must have run rampant in lives of old.
“Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild, with a faery, hand in hand.” — W. B. Yeats
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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who has all her teeth. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org