recess radio program

08/23/05
Legends of the Tooth Fairy
    by Tanya Underwood

If only teeth grew on trees, and you wanted a larger upper bicuspid, for example, you could just go to the tooth tree and pick yourself a pearly new one. Were medieval Europeans trying to grow tooth trees when they buried their children's teeth in the earth around their houses? Not exactly. But they were trying to grow something -- permanent teeth. Apparently, according to this archaic belief , burying children' s teeth in the garden would, by some mystic osmosis, cause permanent teeth to grow in children's mouths.

During the Middle Ages, other superstitions arose surrounding children's teeth. In England, for example, children were instructed to burn their baby teeth in order to save the child from hardship in the afterlife. Children who didn't consign their baby teeth to the fire would spend eternity searching for them in the afterlife. The Vikings, it is said, paid children for their teeth. In the Norse culture, children's teeth and other articles belonging to children, were said to bring good luck in battle, and Scandinavian warriors hung children's teeth on a string around their necks. But there was another reason to burn or bury baby teeth: fear of witches. In medieval Europe, it was thought that if a witch were to get hold of one of your teeth, you could be in big trouble -- possession of this part of your body might give them total power over you.

Sinister as this may be, this belief may provide us with one of our earliest glimpses of the figure who would eventually emerge from the shadows over the centuries to become the Tooth Fairy. Clearly, our tooth fairy of the present bears little resemblance to her dark origins. Today, she is small and sparkly and friendly. She has wings and carries a wand. Today, she is also a business, and you can find tooth fairy items for sale in gift shops and all over the Internet -- from pillows and pewter boxes, to books and yard ornaments. Perhaps most importantly, she's a source of rewards for children. Evidently, the current rate of exchange for each baby tooth is a dollar, though there are reports that some tooth fairies pay up much more for eye teeth and molars.

But a nagging question remains: what does the Tooth Fairy do with all the teeth she buys? The answer to this is as elusive as the tooth fairy herself. Some have claimed that she must be building a giant castle with the teeth, or that she keeps the teeth in a pink cloud. Others believe that she throws the teeth up as high as she can and they become the brilliant stars we see in the night sky. Hmmm. When you think of all the baby teeth there have ever been or will be, the numbers may just be right.

Copyright 2005 Tanya Underwood

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."