Sand dollars can symbolize Christmas, too
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 @gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville, VA 22923.
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.