Like Santa or the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy is a childhood tradition so deeply ingrained, it’s rare you ever stop to think deeply about it. But when you do, there’s no two ways about it – the tooth fairy is a deeply strange idea.
Imagine if you only heard about it as an adult – that when children lose their milk teeth, they place them under their pillows for magical creatures to take away while they sleep, leaving coins in return. You’d think someone was taking the mick.
What does a fairy want with a child’s tooth? What do they do with them after they take them away? How does a fairy (a) source and (b) carry currency? There are so many questions.
As writer Dana Schwartz recently pointed out on Twitter, it’s one of those deeply weird traditions that nobody ever questions.
It might be all cute because there’s a fairy involved, but this adorable tradition involves exchanging “discarded bones”, as Schwartz puts it, for cold hard cash. (Not to mention there’s no way these fairies are paying tax on this income, but whatever).
Part of the popularity is that it, theoretically, pleases everyone – parents worried their children are “growing up too fast” are delighted they still have these sweet beliefs, while children are pretty stoked to be given money.
It’s one of those Santa-esque mutual agreements where even the least shrewd of youngsters realise they’re better off keeping quiet and finding money under their pillow than pointing out how silly it is.
Let’s not forget the tooth fairy is also a potential source of upset in school – like pocket money and particularly generous Santas – with fairies seeming to pay more for the teeth of wealthy children. A 2018 survey found massive discrepancies in what the tooth fairy left children, with Bradford’s milk teeth bringing in just 50p to Harrogate’s £2.50.
Lots of cultures have their own versions of this fairy – and they’re all kind of gnarly. In Scandinavia, “tooth fees” of various kinds have been paid to children since at least the 13th century. Some Vikings reportedly even paid children for their teeth, then wore them around their necks before heading into battle. And, in a lot of Spanish, Italian and French-speaking countries, various rodents take on dental-payment duties. El Ratoncito Pérez, aka el Ratón de los Dientes, swaps teeth for gifts, while La Petite Souris opts for coins.
And then there’s the one sometimes done in schools where a tooth – that presumably belonged to a teachers’ own offspring and was “fairied” away – is dissolved in a bottle of Coke over a few days to demonstrate the importance of toothbrushing.