St. Nicholas icon

St. Nicholas icon

St. Nicholas, said to be the inspiration for the legendary Santa Claus, may not be a myth, according to a New Oxford University archaeological research project.

Testing bones said to be those of the St. Nick held in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Southern Puglia since 1087 has demonstrated that the remains are from the correct historical period.

One of the most revered Orthodox Christian saints, the remains of the legendary Santa have been interred in a crypt beneath a marble alter. Over the years relic fragments have been acquired by various churches around the world, calling into question how the bones can all be from the same person.

Professor Tom Higham and Georges Kazan, directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Center, have for the first time tested micro-fragments of one of these bones. The radiocarbon dating results pinpoint the relic’s age to the fourth century A.D. – the time that some historians allege that St. Nicholas died (around 343 A.D). The results suggest that the bones could be authentic and belong to the saint.

“Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest,” said Higgins. “This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself.”

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St. Nicholas is thought to have lived in Myra, Asia Minor, which is now modern-day Turkey. According to legend he was a wealthy man who was widely known for his generosity, a trait that inspired the legend of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day.

Believed to have been persecuted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, the saint died in Myra, where his remains became a focus of Christian devotion. His remains are said to have been taken away by a group of Italian merchants and transported to Bari, where the bulk of them rest.

The relic originally came from Lyon in France but most of the bones believed to be from St. Nicholas are still preserved in Bari, while some are in the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice.

“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,” said Kazan. “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.”

The relics held in Venice consist of as many as 500 bone fragments, which an anatomical study concluded were complementary to the Bari collection, suggesting that both sets of relics could originate from the same individual. It remains to be confirmed what fragments of the pelvis are contained amongst the Venice relics, if any.

The archaeologists’ work has revealed that the bone has been venerated for nearly 1,700 years, making it one of the oldest relics that the Oxford team has ever analyzed. As radiocarbon-dating technology has become more sophisticated in recent years, ancient relics have become more accessible in ways that previously would have been considered too invasive to study.

In the 16th century stories about St. Nicholas become popular, and the legend of Father Christmas was born. December 6 is known and celebrated in several European countries – particularly Holland, as St. Nicholas Feast Day. On the eve of the feast, children leave out clogs and shoes to be filled with presents.

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