Sand dol­lars can sym­bol­ize Christ­mas, too

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Your Life - BY KAT BERG­ERON

Ever heard of a mer­maid coin?

Hint: I’m not re­fer­ring to real money washed out of our homes by such his­toric storms as Camille and Ka­t­rina. These coins be­gin and end as prod­ucts of the sea, so it makes sense for mer­maids to use them as cur­rency. That is, if you be­lieve these half-fish, half-hu­man crea­tures ex­ist.

You likely know the an­swer to the ques­tion is “sand dol­lar.”

But did you know that you can count the growth rings on a sand dol­lar just like you can a sec­tion of tree trunk to es­ti­mate its age? They are thought to live six to 10 years, not a bad age con­sid­er­ing the wear and tear they re­ceive from rolling tides and be­ing stuffed in mer­maid purses.

So why am I writ­ing about sand dol­lars?

Af­ter all, it’s Christ­mas time not Easter. Any­one who knows lo­cal folk­lore knows that sand dol­lars found on Mis­sis­sippi

Coast beaches and is­lands are sup­posed to rep­re­sent the Easter story. That’s be­cause with a bit of imag­i­na­tion when study­ing its de­sign and wrin­kles, sev­eral sym­bols of Christ’s cru­ci­fix­ion and res­ur­rec­tion story can be dis­cerned.

But I re­cently came across an an­nounce­ment in a 50-year-old edi­tion of this news­pa­per, then called The Daily Her­ald, that makes me re­think the tim­ing of the le­gend.

The Her­ald ed­i­tors in 1969 ti­tled their piece, “The Sand Dol­lar wishes to share its Christ­mas le­gend with you,” and they used the shell’s sym­bol­ism to wish their read­ers “the joy and peace of this Christ­mas sea­son now and through­out the com­ing New Year.”

Be­fore we delve into all the sym­bol­ism, here’s a few facts about the sand dol­lar.

Sand dol­lars can be bought at lo­cal beach sou­venir shops if you don’t want to do the beach comb­ing your­self. The flat, white, round shells are not com­mon­place on our beaches, but the dili­gent can some­times find them af­ter ex­treme tides or storms, es­pe­cially on is­land beaches.

Alive, sand dol­lars look like fuzzy, mostly gray­ish­green cook­ies and they must die to be­come the Christ­mas — or Easter — le­gend. Dead, their white skele­tons are mostly round, del­i­cate shells that are etched on both sides with de­signs nec­es­sary for the le­gend.

The sand dol­lar is an echi­noid, a type of ma­rine an­i­mal. Its disc-shaped shell is made of in­ter­lock­ing plates of cal­cium car­bon­ate. Af­ter the an­i­mal dies and all the tiny spines that help it pro­pel on the sea bot­tom are cleaned off, the skele­ton be­comes the stuff of le­gend.

This is how the Her­ald ex­plained the le­gend of sym­bols that year:

“On the top side of the shell an out­line of the

Easter Lily is clearly seen. At the cen­ter of the lily a five pointed star rep­re­sent­ing the Star of Beth­le­hem ap­pears. The fine nar­row open­ings are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the four nail holes and the spear wound made in the body of Christ dur­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion.

“Re­vers­ing the shell, you will eas­ily rec­og­nized the out­line of the Christ­mas poin­set­tia and also the bell. When bro­ken, in­side the shell are five lit­tle birds called the doves of peace. Some say they are the an­gels that sang to the shep­herds the first Christ­mas morn­ing.”

In our time, we are more aware of a poem found lo­cally on post cards. I’ve traced the poem’s likely ori­gins to a per­son named V. L. Lit­tle, who in the 1970s ap­par­ently wrote this poem to ex­plain the sand dol­lar’s sym­bol­ism:

The sand dol­lar, No in­trin­sic value has he, Only re­minders of our Lord,

Up from the sea.

Four lit­tle holes for the nails,

Which held him to die. An­other one, too,

Where the spear pierced his side.

A star for the manger, A bell to ring,

And in­side five doves,

His praises to sing.

To un­der­stand the last line, you must care­fully break in half a sand dol­lar and give a lit­tle shake. Out will fall five “teeth” once used by the live sand dol­lar to fil­ter plank­ton for food. These “doves of peace” re­ally do look like tiny, fly­ing white doves — or per­haps an­gels.

Now that I’m re-ed­u­cat- ed on the sand dol­lar, I sug­gest that Santa Claus add them to his stock­ing lists. Imag­ine all the “What’s this for?” on Christ­mas morn­ing. Kat Berg­eron, a vet­eran fea­ture writer spe­cial­iz­ing in Gulf Coast his­tory and sense of place, is re­tired from the Sun Her­ald. She writes the Mis­sis­sippi Coast Chron­i­cles col­umn as a free­lance cor­re­spon­dent. Reach her at Berg­eronKat or at South­ern Pos­sum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Bar­boursville, VA 22923.

Cour­tesy of Kat Berg­eron

Sand dol­lar hol­i­day sym­bols in the shell in­clude poin­set­tia leaves, left, and the star on top of the shell, right. Five doves of peace – or an­gels – are in­cluded in hol­i­day le­gends.

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