By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Secrets of a sand dollar

If it would delight you to receive a personal Christmas message from an angel, or five white doves, here’s what you should do.

First, find an unbroken sand dollar.

A good place to look is at Seaside or Gearhart.

You may be surprised to learn that angels, or five white doves, might be found on Oregon beaches, but these are the sand dollar’s messengers.

Upon arrival at the beach, as you scuff your feet through the sand, keep eyes downward, and search carefully for those beautiful white, bleached and burnished treasures.

Long ago, these sand dollars, it is believed, received their name because of their resemblance to the large ancient Spanish dollars.

Lovely legends abound about these shells, such as the story that sand dollars are money from the mermaids who live out at sea.

But the best known sand dollar legends are Christmas versions. One of these suggests that the sand dollar is a symbol left by Christ to help his followers carry the faith to others. The five holes, often found in the side of a sand dollar are said to commemorate the five wounds of Christ. Some identify one flower on the sand dollar as an Easter lily. Almost everyone thinks the flower atop the sand dollar is the Christmas poinsettia. At the center of one of the flowers is a tiny star: the Star of Bethlehem.

When you find a sand dollar that is unbroken, hopefully your personally delivered Christmas message will be in hand.

Now, carefully, ever so carefully, break open the center of the sand dollar. And, if luck is with you, there you will find a tiny white angel — or five white doves — and the message they have brought is, “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Be advised, however, you will not find an angel or doves in every sand dollar. They are very fragile. And if a sand dollar has been on the beach for a considerable length of time before being found, the sand dollars have probably become impatient while waiting to deliver their message and have already taken these “messages” elsewhere.

I did not know the sand dollar legends until my good friend, Emma, told me about them. Em knew well the lore of the beach. Her grandmother had bequeathed to Em a Seaside cottage with ocean frontage. It was a winsome retreat with beachcombing decor, glass floats, strange pieces of driftwood carved by the Pacific — and many shells. Em spent much time at the beach and she and her husband, Bennie, our good college friends, often invited Homer and me to Seaside for the weekend.

A long strip of sandy beach in front of the cottage was a fine place to hike. And Em had a “mandate” for her guests. When we took a walk, we were, without fail, to bring back something memorable, interesting or unusual to add to the cottage collection.

One weekend when Homer and I visited them, I took such a walk and found a sand dollar — an unbroken one — a perfect white disc. Proudly I took it back to Em and she then told me of the sand dollar legends. If you were lucky — very lucky — you could find in that shell, a tiny angel or five white doves, that brought you a personal “Peace on Earth” Christmas message.

I loved those sand dollar legends that Em told me — particularly the Christmas version. And although I wanted to find an angel, rather than five white doves as messengers, I would have been pleased with either.

Particularly so, because in either case, those sand dollars, in a sense, sacrificed their lives to become possible deliverers of that Christmas message. Those now-bleached white shells once were burrowing sea urchins who lived in seabeds, and had velvety-textured spines covered with tiny hairs. They were relatives of starfish.

As living creatures, the spines of the sand dollars coordinated movement that enabled them to scoot about in the seabeds. That poinsettia that you see on the shell was the living sand dollar’s five paired rows of pores, or perforations in the endoskeleton. The sand dollar’s mouth is at the center of the shell. Its anus is on the back, at the bottom below the center. Food grooves move the food to its mouth. It eats crustacean larvae.

Sand dollars are messengers in many places — not just Oregon beaches. They are widespread in ocean waters of the Northern Hemisphere, in both temperate and tropical areas. Elsewhere, they may be known by different names. In New Zealand, they’re called sea cookies or snapper biscuits. In South Africa, they’re called pansy shells because, to some, the flower design on the sand dollar resembles a pansy. The flatter version of the shells, found in some areas, is known as a sea biscuit.

After Em told me the legend of the sand dollar, she later sent me a copy of this poem by an anonymous author. This is that Christmas legend:

“There’s a lovely little legend that I would like to tell

Of the birth and death of Jesus, found in this lowly shell.

If you’ll examine it closely, you’ll see that you find here

Four nailholes and a fifth, made by a Roman spear.

On one side the Easter lily, its center is the star

That appeared unto the shepherds and led them from afar.

The Christmas poinsettia etched on the other side

Reminds me of His birthday, our happy Christmastide.

Now break the center open and here you will release

The five white doves waiting to spread Good Will and Peace.

This simple little symbol Christ left for you and me

To help us spread His gospel through all eternity.”

I would prefer that a tiny white angel, rather than five white doves brought me the message, but in truth, it should not matter if we are but lucky enough to find an unbroken sand dollar that hands to us the word,

“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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