Did you know? In Argentina, children place their lost teeth in a glass of water. In Greece and India, they throw their teeth onto the roof. In Japan, they bury them in the ground. It’s only in the United States, some European countries, and a few other Western-influenced societies that children leave their lost teeth under their pillows for the tooth fairy. So who is the tooth fairy and where did she come from?

Who is the tooth fairy and where did she come from?

According to NPR program RECESS!, superstitions around children’s teeth first arose in Europe during the Middle Ages. While people were accusing (mostly) women of being witches, they began to believe that witches could use a person’s teeth to cast curses. When a tooth fell out, therefore, it was important to hide that tooth or otherwise make it disappear—either by burning the tooth as they did in early England, or later, by sending it to “another world”; in this case, fairyland. A fairy was needed to shepherd the tooth to fairyland, and thus, the tooth fairy was born.

What does the tooth fairy look like?

Again, depictions of the tooth fairy vary across cultures, but she is commonly believed to be a small fantastical creature, human-like and feminine-presenting, with wings. She either wears a modern dress, a dress made of natural materials like leaves, or a leotard (thanks in part to Tinkerbell’s portrayal in J.M. Barrie’s PETER PAN).

In France and Spain, however, the tooth fairy is a little mouse known as La Petite Souris or Ratoncito Pérez. Like the winged, humanoid tooth fairy, La Petite Souris and Ratoncito Pérez collect the teeth left beneath children’s pillows.

What does the tooth fairy do?

As a child, I put my lost teeth under my pillow, same as my daughters would one day do. The idea was that, like Santa Claus at Christmas, the tooth fairy would only come if you were asleep. To actually see the tooth fairy would have spoiled the magick.

Placing your lost tooth beneath your pillow (or in a glass of water) keeps it safe until the tooth fairy can retrieve and spirit it away to fairyland, where, tradition states, teeth are variously used to construct fairy buildings or turned into bright stars in the night sky. For their critical contributions to fairyland, children are in turn “rewarded” with money, a gift, or a note of encouragement left in the offered tooth’s stead.

A “note of encouragement” the tooth fairy left my jealous daughter after her twin lost a tooth first!

And in places where they don’t have the tooth fairy?

In cultures that don’t acknowledge the tooth fairy, such as Greece, India, and Japan, the sacrifice of the tooth to the roof or the ground more closely resembles an offering meant to ensure the strong, healthy growth of one’s permanent (adult) teeth.

Why is the tooth fairy still so popular?

The Middle Ages were a long time ago and witch hunts are largely a thing of the past. Nevertheless, the tooth fairy mythos endures. I think it’s because losing baby teeth is a universal experience and childhood rite of passage; as such, the moment deserves recognition and even celebration.

When I was a kid, leaving teeth under my pillow for the tooth fairy was as natural as trick-or-treating on Halloween, lighting fireworks on the 4th of July, or any other American institution, and I’m glad today’s youth still have the ritual to look forward to. However you mark the occasion—with a fairy, a mouse, or something else entirely—I hope it (and my book UNDER MY PILLOW!) make the sometimes-scary process of growing up a little less frightening.

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