Among the numerous Christian relics around the world are those said to belong to St. Nicholas, the 4th-century saint who is the inspiration behind the modern-day Santa Claus. While the bulk of his supposed remains are stored in a basilica in Italy, researchers dated a fragment in a private collection in the United States and found it to originate from the same period as his death, as mentioned in historical accounts.

According to legends, St. Nicholas was a wealthy man known for his generosity, which explains why he could have inspired the legend of a figure who brings gifts on Christmas. He is thought to have died in Myra (in present-day Turkey) around 343 AD, and his remains were later taken away by a group of Italian merchants, and stored in the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, in southern Puglia, Italy, since 1087.

Father Dennis O'’Neill, of St. Martha of Bethany Church, Shrine of All Saints, in Morton Grove, Illinois, procured a relic fragment — a bone, identified as a part of the human pelvis — thought to belong to St. Nicholas. Researchers from Oxford University used radiocarbon dating on that fragment and found it was from the 4th century.

In a statement Wednesday, Tom Higham from the university said: “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.”

St Nicholas Relic Relic of St Nicholas (pelvis fragment) at St. Martha of Bethany Church/Shrine of All Saints, Morton Grove, Illinois. Photo: T. Higham & G. Kazan

While the bulk of St. Nicholas’ relics are in Bari, there are also some stored in Venice and fragments have been acquired by churches across the world. The almost 500 bone fragments in Venice have already been identified as complimentary to the Baru collection.

The fragment owned by Father O’Neill originally came from Lyon, France. The relics in Bari don’t include the saint’s full pelvis, but instead, only the left ilium (upper part of the bone). The fragment dated by the researchers was the lower part of the bone, or the pubis, further allowing the possibility that they came from the same person.

Georges Kazan, the other Oxford researcher involved in the radiocarbon dating, said in the statement: “These results encourage us to now turn to the Bari and Venice relics to attempt to show that the bone remains are from the same individual. We can do this using ancient palaeogenomics or DNA testing. It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could, in fact, be genuine.”

Stories about St. Nicholas became popular in the 16th century, leading to the legend of Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Dec. 6 is celebrated in many European countries, particularly in the Netherlands, as St. Nicholas Feast Day and involves giving of gifts to children by their parents.