The lore of fairy doors

Posted by Michelle Gruben on

The lore of fairy doors

Sitting at the base of a tree, on a garden wall, or over a baseboard, fairy doors invite us to imagine a fanciful realm just beyond the threshold. Not just for children, these miniature doors pop up in backyards, homes and businesses wherever fairies are welcomed.  

Fairy doors are a common sight in the wooded outskirts of some UK towns (whose authorities have had to resort to removing them to curb the fairy invasion). They’re a local tradition and tourist draw in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’ve been spotted by photographers in the unlikely environs of New York City and San Francisco.

Fairy doors may be purchased or homemade, fancy or homely. But they all serve the mystifying purpose of allowing fairies to travel between their worlds and ours. Fairy doors work on two basic assumptions about the fae folk: That fairies are diminutive in size (a conceit made madly popular by the Victorian “flower fairy” artists), and liminal in nature (able to exist in that “in-between” state betwixt the worlds).

That fairies exist liminally is beyond a doubt. After all, they can fit their entire homes in the space between a fairy door and a wall. On the matter of size, well, most experts agree that fairies they can be small if they want to be. And who wouldn’t want to be small, if it meant you could sleep in a bird’s nest and drink from an acorn shell? Great ideas, Victorians!

Practically speaking, there are a couple of important questions to consider before installing a fairy door. The most pertinent of these is, do you actually want fairies to visit you? Sure, fairies are fun-loving, generous, ethereal beings. But they can also be entitled, mischievous, selfish, thieving, sneaky, and downright destructive. Make no mistake, installing a fairy door is a real bit of portal magick. It’s like an engraved invitation—even if you thought it just looked cute on your flowerpot.

On the other hand, a fairy door can be a novel tactic for dealing with a posse of troublesome fairies that’s already moved in. Do your house fairies rely on frightening your pets, hiding your keys, and stealing your trinkets in order to get the attention they crave? Providing them with a nice home of their own is one way to “kill them with kindness” and inspire better behavior.

Also consider the placement of your fairy door. Fairy real estate is governed by the same rules as humans’: Location, location, location. Ever the finicky critters, fairies like attention (but also security and privacy). So place your fairy door somewhere out of the way that is still a position of honor in your home or yard. Fairies enjoy running water, yummy smells, moonlight, the sun at dawn or twilight, and the shade of trees. (Bonus points for placing your door near the “fairy trees” of Oak, Ash, Hawthorn, or Elder.) Mushrooms and mushroom rings have long been regarded as a sure sign of fairy favor. No fairy wants to be bothered by litter, cars, or dogs.

Finally, you’ll want to spare a thought for the upkeep of the fairy door. Fairies love gifts (almost as much as they love invitations). Stones and shells, beads, coins, bits of ribbon, and feathers are irresistible loot. (Fairies are happy to receive those foreign coins you got stuck with on your last trip.) It’s rumored that some fairies even collect children’s teeth, but tooth fairies are a special breed of fae—many fairies find the lingering odor of human blood distasteful. Fairies will swoon for a perfect berry, freshly brewed tea, a thimble of milk or whiskey, or a piece of bread with honey (even better if it’s the first or last morsel from the loaf).

Offerings aren’t strictly necessary—but once you begin leaving them, it’s wise to keep up the practice. Don’t cultivate an expectation you can’t fulfill by leaving goodies every day and then stopping abruptly. Ever capricious, sweet fairies can turn sour at the slightest insult. Infrequent (but regular) offerings are fine. Even forgetful fairy landlords can probably remember to mark the fairy holidays of Beltane (May Day), Midsummer, and Samhain (Halloween) with a small token or treat.

If you don’t choose to leave offerings at the fairy door, at least keep it in good repair. (You wouldn’t want your fairies to receive a letter from their neighborhood association.) Wooden fairy doors benefit from a fresh coat of varnish every couple of seasons. Resin doors are more durable, but may crack in extremely cold temperatures. Before moving the door, leave your fairies a note so they know where to find their winter quarters.

Many people have wondered how to tell if a fairy door is in use. Most, in fact, are. (Did I mention fairies love invitations?) A vacant fairy door is harder to find than a vacant bus seat at rush hour. But, in the rare instance that your fairy home is still fairyless after a few days, you may need to boost the signal to encourage them to move in.

It’s often assumed that fairies are wiser and more observant than humans, but that’s not always the case. [Disparaging comment about pixies deleted. –Ed.] In case your neighborhood fae are the slow type, they may not recognize the dwelling is for them. Try equipping the fairy door with a welcome mat, miniature key, or “FAIRY HOUSE” painted boldly across the threshold. (Illiterate fairies might be enticed by a trail of ginger snap crumbs.)

A fairy door can be a decorative accent, a child’s plaything, a magickal tool—or all of these things at the same time. Choose yours with care, place it thoughtfully, and allow the fairies to do the rest!

Photo: Fairy door by the author.

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