Tooth Fairy – American Folk Ritual

1. Text

When asked to share a folk belief, the informant responded with the following:

“The tooth fairy is a mythical creature that is very familiar to American children. They are taught that the tooth fairy will exchange their lost teeth for some kind of prize if they put them under their pillow before going to bed. Parents will often come in while the child is sleeping and swap the tooth out for a small gift, usually money, to make it look like the tooth fairy came.”

2. Context

Informant relation to the piece:

Informant learned the ritual from hearing kindergarten classmates talk about losing teeth. Informant is currently a college student. Informant is American and grew up in the states. They mentioned that at a “young enough age everyone believed in the tooth fairy” and was “upset when they realized that she isn’t real”. The ritual made the informant “excited to lose teeth” because it meant that they would get a gift that night. They realized the tooth fairy was not real around 8 years old when they caught their dad putting money under their pillow.

Informant interpretation of the piece:

The informant has no idea where the ritual originated, and suggests that maybe it started as a way to keep kids from being scared of losing baby teeth.

3. Analysis

The American folk ritual of the tooth fairy is tied to a life cycle event of aging where children lose their baby teeth and grow adult ones that last for the rest of their lives. This ritual is not tied to a specific time or date, but rather whenever a child loses a baby tooth. It also only happens for a limited amount of times before the child loses all their baby teeth. Since most children go through this process of losing teeth, it is a common and widespread ritual for American families. This ritual is mainly a form of deception from the parents to the children as they create a mythical figure called the tooth fairy to create a sense of magic and wonder in the children that they associate with losing teeth. This seemingly harmless form of deception or fictional storytelling from parents can also be observed in rituals such as Santa Claus bringing presents on Christmas Eve. This is interesting when compared to some Asian cultures which originally did not perform rituals such as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. In Japan, when a child loses a baby tooth, they either throw it up on the roof or bury it in the dirt. There is no reward for losing the tooth like in the American Tooth Fairy ritual however it symbolizes the child maturing and wishing for good fortune and health for the child. In comparison the Japanese ritual does not involve deception from the parents as the American one does. Perhaps this speaks to how the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus act as a rite of passage for Americans, where most children believe in the mythical figures until a certain age and must deal with the realization that they were deceived by their parents, which motivates them to continue to pass down this rite of passage to their children. In a way this form of deception encapsulated in the tooth fairy ritual represents the loss of naivety and gaining of maturity when a child grows up. Since growing up often means learning a lot of unpleasant faces of the world, the tooth fairy ritual can act as a vaccine or initial exposure to American children in preparation for adulthood.