It’s Christmas Eve. As I lie awake in my bed, I hear some rustling downstairs. “Is it Santa?” I think to my 7-year-old self. So, I quietly tiptoe down the stairs. There’s my mom, placing presents under the tree “from Santa.” That was the moment I realized that Santa wasn’t real. But that doesn’t mean he never was.
The history of Santa Claus is an interesting one. Legend has it that the jolly man in the red suit is based on a real person: a Christian bishop called St. Nicholas.
Born in the 3rd century in Patara, Turkey — which is a region that was Greek at the time — St. Nicholas is believed to have dedicated his life to helping those less fortunate, from young children to sailors.
It is this generosity that is thought to have inspired the story of Santa Claus, a man who travels around the globe on Christmas Eve, delivering gifts to good little boys and girls.
But researchers from Oxford University in the United Kingdom suggest that St. Nicholas is more than a legend; they reveal how ancient bone fragments that have been discovered in churches around the world may all belong to the man himself.
Since 1087 AD, what are believed to be the remains of St. Nicholas have been held in a crypt at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. It is said that the remains were taken there by Italian merchants, around 700 years after his death — which many historians claim occurred around 343 AD.
However, bone fragments also thought to belong to St. Nicholas have been attained by various churches worldwide. So can these scattered fragments really belong to the same person?
To find out, Prof. Tom Higham — a director of the Relics Cluster at the Advanced Studies Centre at Oxford’s Keble College — and colleagues used radiocarbon dating on a sample of one of these bones.
“Where once we needed physical portions of a bone sample, we can now test milligram size, micro-samples — opening up a new world of archaeological study,” says Dr. Georges Kazan, also a director of the Relics Cluster.
The sample was from a pelvis bone, acquired by Father Dennis O’Neill, of St. Martha of Bethany Church, Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, IL. Interestingly, the remains of St. Nicholas held in Bari do not include the full pelvis.
From the radiocarbon testing, Prof. Higham and colleagues were able to date the bones back to the 4th century, which corresponds with the suggested date of St. Nicholas’s death.
“Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself.”
Prof. Tom Higham
As well as the remains in Bari, more than 500 bone fragments believed to belong to St. Nicholas are also being held in Venice, Italy. Prof. Higham and his team now plan to test all of these fragments, with the aim of showing that they are all from the same individual.
“We can do this using ancient palaeogenomics, or DNA testing,” says Dr. Kazan. “It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could in fact be genuine.”