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The Legend of the Sand Dollar

Margaret C. Gallitzin
It is difficult to find a shell so rich in symbolism as the sand dollar. When I was a girl, I saw my first sand dollar – which I later learned was called the key hole sand dollar – and my uncle, a priest, explained to me how it represented the story of the Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I never forgot that lesson of how to see God in visible Creation.

front sand dollar

The sand dollar - front above, and back below

sand dollar back

The sand dollar is flat-looking burrowing sea urchin belonging to the order Clypeasteroida. It lives on the floor of shallow sandy waters along the coasts of ocean waters in the Northern Hemisphere. The mollusks are washed up on Oregon Coast beaches regularly.

After the urchin is washed up on the beach and bleached by the sun, it looks like a large silver coin, such as the old Spanish or American dollar. Ergo, its simple American name. In other places it is known as the sea biscuit or pansy shell.

It was not long, however, before a legend rich in Catholic symbolism developed about the poorly named sand dollar. This was the story my uncle told me:

On the top part of the shell you can clearly see in the center a star, which represents the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men to the manger when Christ was born. Around it is the outline of the Easter lily, a sign of Our Lord’s Resurrection.

At the edges of the star are four holes and in the center another one. These remind us of the four Sacred Wounds of Our Lord on His Hands and Feet that He bore after being nailed to the Cross. A center hole, the fifth, represents the pierce Wound to His Sacred Heart made by the spear of Longinus.

If you turn the sand dollar over, you will find an outline of the Poinsetta, the Christmas flower.


The sand dollar always has five doves inside

Finally, if you break open the sand dollar, five "doves" emerge – the doves of the Peace and Joy of Christmas. There are always five doves every time you open one.

Many poems have been written about the legend of the sand dollar. This one, author unknown, is my favorite:

The legend of the Sand dollar
That I would like to tell
Of the birth and death of Jesus Christ
Found in this lowly shell.

If you will examine closely,
You'll see that you find here
Four nail holes and a fifth one
Made by a Roman's spear.

On one side the Easter Lily,
It's center is the star
That appeared unto the shepherds
And led them from afar.

The Christmas Poinsettia
Etched on the other side
Reminds us of His birthday,
Our joyous Christmas tide.

Now break the center open
And here you will release
The five white doves awaiting
To spread good will and peace.

This simple little symbol,
Christ left for you and me.
To help to spread His Message
Through all eternity.

sand dollars

Posted December 21, 2013
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