A Child Who Believes: The Americanization of Folklore
“We will watch over the children of Earth…for they are all that we have, all that we are, and all that we ever will be.”
In lieu of the past holiday season, I’d like to share my favorite moment of cultural shock that happened during my exchange programme in university.
All from different denominations and countries, my roommates and I would sometimes gather to watch films and series. And it was one fateful evening when we decided to watch Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians. During the scene when the characters travel the globe in order to collect teeth, Baby Tooth, one of the Tooth Fairy’s helpers, encounters a little mouse and attacks him. The Tooth Fairy holds her back and says, “He’s one of us! Part of the European division.”
At this, my French roommate paused the film and explained that in Europe they have a belief that it’s a mouse, and not a fairy, that collects children’s baby teeth.
“I know,” I said, “we have the same thing in Mexico. In fact, the Spanish dub for the film has the Tooth Fairy state that the mouse is part of the Latin American division.”
Two hours later the film was still paused as a heated debate ensued about Hollywood and holidays throughout the world and why, just why, the Tooth Fairy is presented as the main figurehead for baby teeth when both Europe and Latin America hold the belief in a mouse?
While there are differing opinions on its official definition, americanization is in itself the process of adapting the values and behaviors found predominantly in the United State’s culture. With the intention to integrate immigrants into an American way of life, the practice can often be one of coercion, forcing outside groups to adhere to a single cultural standard despite the variety of cultures and practices throughout the world.
The film Rise of the Guardians explores different folkloric figures such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman as they fight the boogeyman, Pitch Black, to protect different values present in childhood: dreams, hope, memories, and wonder. Joining them in the fray is Jack Frost, a newly appointed Guardian chosen by the Man in the Moon. Though the movie establishes them within a specific part of the world (the North Pole, Australia, Southeast Asia, etc.) the story regards them as part of a belief system that grants them life and powers, and is shared by children of all countries and cultures. The book series, The Guardians of Childhood written by William Joyce, also plays into this fault, as it has these characters from outer space become a part of the collective culture of the world, ignoring any previous beliefs or the presence of any other mythological figure that would fill the same role as they do.
Other than the French Tooth Mouse, the film seems to suggest that the Guardians have no cultural counterpart, which is strange when the plot embarks them on a worldwide journey to collect teeth on their own rather than recruit the help of the other beings that are part of their organization. Instead, they are relegated to a cheeky and somewhat condescending reference to “foreign” traditions when they probably defend the same thing the Tooth Fairy does. And it’s worse when both the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy claim the entire world for their own:
“We’re talking seven continents! Millions of kids!”
Makes no sense when it’s daytime in other parts of the world, and we see them jumping from China to Russia to Paris and to New York in a single night; and when they’ve established that someone else takes care of specific regions like Europe, or Latin America if you watch the film in Spanish, so wouldn’t their work be cut down significantly?
“There will be springtime on every continent!”
Also makes no sense due to the way seasons work on the hemispheres, as well as ignoring that not everyone celebrates Easter. And even the people who do don’t necessarily share the practice of going on an egg hunt hosted by the Easter Bunny.
This makes it a tad difficult, if not outright impossible, to watch the film without feeling your own cultural practices othered by this moment of exceptionalism — the condition of believing oneself to be exceptional or unique, usually with the implication of superiority. It’s a similar kind of astonishing arrogance whenever the topic of the metric system, or that of Fahrenheit versus Celisus, pops up online: so many claim that Fahrenheit is much more simple and intuitive yet overlook that it seems that way because they were raised with it. If more than half the world agrees on a temperature measuring system, how are we the odd ones out? Simply check out the map on Wikipedia depicting which countries use Celsius and which ones use Fahrenheit: it’s very insidious to see most of the map color-coded to gray to indicate the countries that use Celsius while using green to highlight those that use Fahrenheit, making the US stand out. It makes us feel like we’re doing something wrong, as if the rest of the world were the irregularity and not the rule.
So what does it mean for most countries when yet another story like this one comes along and completely overlooks their own cultural beliefs and practices in favor of something more Americanized, more “universal”?
Starting with the character who started it all, let’s take a look at the Tooth Fairy.
There’s some debate as to when this figure originated within the United States. Some sources claim that the official introduction of the Tooth Fairy stems from a 1927 play written by Esther Watkins Arnold, called The Tooth Fairy. However, an article from the Chicago Tribune written in 1908 advises parents on how to teach their children to part with their milk teeth by way of leaving their tooth beneath the pillow for the Tooth Fairy to take in exchange for a nickel.
As previously mentioned, both Europe and Latin America hold a similar belief but through the figure of a mouse, know by several names such as: La petite souris (France), Topino (Italy), La Maritxu Teilatukoa in the Basque Country, El ratón Pérez, el ratoncito Miguel or simply El ratón de los dientes (Spain and Latin America). And it makes sense for these audiences to see themselves reflected in the film through the change in the dubbing process; we get to see our traditions reflected on a big Hollywood production, a space where we lack representation save for stereotypes or a few respectful exceptions.
In some regions of East Asia, there’s a practice of either burying baby teeth or tossing them, depending on whether they are upper or lower teeth, or sometimes just throwing them on a roof in the hopes that a magpie will find it and bring forth good luck. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, there’s a tradition of tossing the baby tooth up in the air towards the sun.
While I love the idea of the Tooth Fairy being the guardian of memories and helping people throughout their lives by unlocking the memories sealed within our baby teeth, it’s a bit annoying to see her, a fairy, made into the main representative of the culture surrounding our milk teeth. As we dive deeper into this topic, we’ll see that there are so many folkloric figures and traditions throughout the world for Hollywood to assume that that US’s version is the correct one; and when the throwaway line of the “European division” literally establishes a counterpart to one of the four guardians, then what potential is there for the other figures who are more prominent throughout the world than those that happen to be popular within western culture?
Sandy, alongside Pitch Black, is perhaps the lesser offender of the legendary figures presented in the film. There’s no mention of Morpheus, Hypnos, or any such figure but seeing as Sandy’s powers are similar throughout European folklore, it could simply be explained as another one of his names. While he’s known in Latin America as “Juan Pestañas,” his name in the Latinamercan dub of the film is Meme, which comes from a play on how children would mispronounce the verb “dormir”, meaning, to sleep. Pitch is also named differently in Latin America, often going by “El Coco” as the Spanish equivalent of “the boogeyman.”
The Man in the Moon is an interesting figure. While he is presented as the leader of the Guardians both in the book series and the film, he has little to no presence in the latter, or any influence other than choosing mystical beings to become guardians of children (though the question remains whether he also grants them eternal life and purpose, since the film jokingly references the Leprechaun and the Groundhog as real but not as official Guardians). In the book series, he is a little man who grew up alone on a spaceship that malfunctioned after an attack from Pitch and remained stationary as the Earth’s moon forevermore. In order to give the children of Earth a friend to look out for them and protect them from nightmares, he kicked sand around on the surface of his moon until it formed the shape of a smiling face.
However, different cultures throughout the world carry their own worldview and mythology concerning the creation and worship of the moon as a sort of deity: Mesoamerican cultures with several figures such as Metztli, Coyolxauhqui, Ix Chel, amgost others, Khonsu as the ancient Egyptian god of the moon, Selene in Greek mythology, Tsukuyomi within Shintoism, and so on. And while different animals, such as foxes or frogs, have been associated with the moon, some cultures from East Asia and North America believe that the markings on the face of the moon resemble that of a rabbit, rather than a man.
In Rise of the Guardians, there is no such figure. While the Latin American dub simply refers to him as “El hombre de la luna,” or “Lunar” for short (just as he is called “Manny” or “MiM” in the movie and books respectively), the film in general makes no reference to a rabbit that would also be a leader or, at the very least, another kind of guardian.
Along a similar vein to the Tooth Mouse, what about figures who essentially fill the same role as other Guardians, who perhaps protect the same element that “fills their center” but are completely forgotten about or simply considered from “another division”?
Let’s look, for example, at Santa Claus.
In Central Europe, Spain, and some parts of Latin America, there’s a tradition of having the Three Wise Men, Magi, or simply Reyes Magos deliver gifts to children on January 6th, also known as the Epiphany, a commemoration of when the Three Wise Men adored the baby Jesus, recognizing him as the king and savior of humanity. It’s customary for children to leave their shoes out for the Magi to place gifts in (in my household it was only one shoe but I believe in most places the custom is to leave both).
While Santa Claus has some basis on Christianity through the figure of Saint Nicholas of Bari, the Three Wise Men remain intrinsically linked to religion as a whole. If they were to exist in the Rise of the Guardians universe, then what would it mean for folklore and religion? Both in religious text and practice, their role is to deliver gifts to children based on their behavior throughout the year, mirroring their gifts to the baby Jesus. Perhaps their guardianship would rule over something other than wonder, considering the historical context as well as the date of the Epiphany, but in essentials they play a similar if not identical role to Santa Claus. The anticipation and excitement children experience on Christmas Eve is exactly the same the night of the 5th of January.
In fact, Nickelodeon Latin America had a very famous stop motion bumper, dating from 2001, where children would leave their shoes out on their window sill for the Magi to leave presents in, but one child in particular can’t find the pair to his shoe and he goes to bed dreading that he’ll receive only half a present. However, in the middle of the night, the shadows of the three Magi can be seen leaving behind a gift-wrapped box, containing not only a toy car but also his other shoe.
To make it even more controversial, there are certain places where it’s not Santa Claus or the Magi, but the baby Jesus himself is believed to deliver gifts to children.
“MiM learned that sometimes the children just needed a toy or a candy or a prize or a sweet dream or a good story to cheer them up.”
“Didn’t they tell you, Jack? It’s great being a guardian! But there’s a catch: if enough kids stop believing, then everything your friends protect, wonder, hopes, and dreams, it all goes away. And little by little, so do they.”
Since the film presents the existence of the Guardians as fact, and since it draws attention to the Tooth Mouse as part of the same organization the Tooth Fairy belongs to, then what would it mean for the existence of other cultural counterparts to the guardians in this universe, such as the Three Wise Men and the baby Jesus for Santa Claus, or Jesus himself for the Easter Bunny considering it’s a Christian celebration? If there is proof of their existence, both in the physical manifestation of their gifts as well as in Jamie and his friends literally being able to see and interact with them, then why is an act of faith necessary?
What would it mean for other religions whose deity doesn’t bring gifts in the middle of the night? And if this were so, what would it mean if, in order to keep up this belief, Jesus must now “spend eternity […] cooped up in some hideout thinking of new ways to bribe kids,” especially when the belief in most of these beings is mostly limited to children and the innocence of childhood. While the Guardians exist in the books as powerful, extraterrestrial beings who vow to protect children and everything childhood entails, in the film the Guardians’ very existence relies on the sustained belief children have in them. Their powers, and perhaps even their life-force, would extinguish without them. So how much is it really a noble cause to defend innocence in childhood and how much is it keeping themselves alive through bribes?
There’s always an issue with stories revolving around Christmas, where if Santa Claus should disappear or decide not to work for a year, then Christmas is automatically canceled. While Rise of the Guardians takes place a few days before Easter, we can assume the same logic is applied if Santa Claus were ever to miss a child on Christmas Eve. However, Christmas is more than a surprise under the tree from a magic man seeing as, you know, it’s the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Much like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, not receiving a gift doesn’t mean that Christmas didn’t arrive; not finding an egg doesn’t mean that Easter passed us by. And while North claims to protect the wonder in children, both naughty and nice, how does that even work with his merit-based system? If Santa Claus brought me coal, do I still believe in him despite the punishment for being a bad kid all year round?
Oftentimes the belief in Santa Claus is viewed as a cynical way of getting children to behave, a quid pro quo where they act nice rather than simply learn to be good; however, many parents have used this approach to teach their children lessons in morality. I know I often received a few gifts along with a letter from Santa explaining how my behavior that year didn’t quite merit a big gift I was looking forward to. For example, in The Santa Clause, they have Laura and Neil explain that they both stopped believing when they didn’t receive the gift they wanted the most, with Neil being only three at the time. Who’s to say that perhaps they didn’t deserve that one gift, or that Santa, being generous but not irresponsible, was unwilling to give a three-year-old a choking hazard of a whistle to play with?
In the Christmas special of the Chilean children’s show, 31 Minutos, there’s a song that tells the story of a girl asking Santa Claus for a bicycle, but he only brings her a hairbrush and a mantelpiece. Feeling cheated, she asks him why he brought her the first thing that he found. In his response, Santa explains that these two gifts are useful and that all presents have a special worth during Christmastime, because what’s truly important is friendship, to share within society, to laugh and to enjoy life. At the end of the song, she asks for another mantelpiece the following year, and Santa brings her a bicycle instead.
So are Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman, guardians of children? Are they deities who rely on faith to sustain them, or are they simple two-dimensional stories meant to teach easily digestible morality lessons to children?
I don’t fault William Joyce for his interpretation of these timeless childhood figures, existing not only within US culture but also throughout the world in different forms and iterations. Throughout history, storytelling has thrived not only through repetition, but also through new contributions and interpretations. The musical Hadestown, for example, takes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and places it within a more industrial setting with capitalist undertones, and points at the marriage issues between Hades and Persephone as the main cause for climate change. Or even stories like Twilight who, despite its criticisms concerning racism, grooming, and the romanticization of abuse, changed vampire lore and added its own twist through the glowing skin of vampires in the sun.
Our modern lenses also play a part in altering how we view past morals and our own life context influences how we interpret different pieces of mythology, and that’s exactly what Joyce did: he ups the ante and has these childhood figures play an active role in the upbringing of children through the protection of their hopes, dreams, and innocence.
As stated before, my main issue stems with how the film, not the book series, depicts beings such as Santa Claus, the Man in the Moon, the Tooth Fairy, as universal beliefs. It established them as the main guardians for wonder and memories rather than admitting to the fact that they are very localized in some instances. This follows the presumption that whatever Hollywood showcases is a universal culture while anything else that doesn’t fit the mold is immediately othered.
Being from Mexico, I’m very familiar with US culture but at the same time, we carry ourselves in different ways, both due to our historical context as well as the way in which our countries have grown and developed throughout time. While we may be neighbors, you become aware of when something culturally normal for you is seen as strange within the US, and that feeling extends to the rest of the world, despite the similarities we might share were American culture not standing in the middle.
During my exchange program, my roommates were from France, Italy, Malaysia and the US, and we naturally had cultural differences. However, as it turned out, most of us had a lot of things in common with the exception of the Americans, with whom we often clashed the most.There were so many instances of us connecting despite the very different countries, languages, and traditions we practiced; it slowly dawned on me that, Hollywood aside, we had so much in common that gets lost when American media refuses to pick it up and distribute it around the world.
I remember a moment where my French roommate asked if we knew the “Numa Numa song,” actually called “Dragostea Din Tei” by O-Zone. For her, the song was a mostly European phenomenon and she had no idea whether it had reached a global level. So when something as simple as an internet video (ironically made viral by an American) is only a regional incident unless US media considers it worthy enough to share, then what kind of acknowledgment can we expect for religious and folkloric figures like the Three Wise Men, the rabbit on the moon, or the Tooth Mouse?
During the climax of the film, when all the lights representing children begin to fade from the globe, the last six lights appear in England and the United States, with only Jamie remaining after creating a bond with the Guardians and soon after, Jack Frost. How is it possible that the Tooth Fairy misses one night, the Easter Bunny fails one year, and all the children in the world stop believing despite having different practices or different guardians who could achieve the exact same goal? Would every religious child that celebrates Resurrection Sunday be affected by the lack of colorful eggs? Would the lights of the children who believe in the baby Jesus and the Three Wise Men flicker out in the middle of Easter when their celebration is still months away? Do the children who live in warm, arid places have a summertime counterpart called “Johnny Sunray” or is the guardian of fun, Jack Frost, only able to spread joy to places that enable snowfall?
While the Guardians of Childhood book series contains a detailed and quite wonderful mythology establishing the personalities, motives, and center of each guardian, the story themselves are relatively simple; after all, they are children’s books, in the best sense of the word. Stories meant for children can often seem two-dimensional, immature, or even simple escapist literature that one outgrows by the time we reach a certain age. However, these tales are vital for the development not just of a child’s mind, but also of their morality and emotional intelligence.
The purpose is to see ourselves as capable of being brave and motivated even as children, at a time when we seem to depend completely on the will and strength of others.
But when we don’t see ourselves represented within books or on the big screen, when we find our culture mocked or blatantly ignored in favor of something more palatable simply because they practice it and we don’t, when our stories remain locked under the “foreign” category unless and English-language adaptations comes inti play, then the world we inhabit becomes a little more lonesome despite having kindred spirits throughout the globe that share our beliefs, our customs, and perhaps even our joys.
Mika is a Mexican writer and translator, pretender, pet-lover, and a mess at 1 in the morning.