A fragment of bone believed to be a relic of St. Nick, the historical figure who inspired our modern Santa, has been dated to the 4th century.
When we collect human remains, we’re considered weird and creepy. When the Catholic church does it, the bones are venerated as holy relics belonging to some historical character said to have lived a saintly life performing good deeds. But often, as evidenced by the history of the catacomb saints, no one knows who those bones actually belong to.
In this case, the bones in question are said to be the remains of the 4th-century figure known as St. Nicholas, whose legendary generosity inspired our modern day Santa Claus. As is often the case, there are several churches claiming to possess the remains of jolly old St. Nick.
The Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, is the most well-known, where remains stolen from Myra, a small town in what is now Turkey, were interred in the crypt in 1089, and left untouched until 1953. When the tomb was opened, an oily liquid was found to be leaking from the bones. The manna of Saint Nicholas, as it is known, supposedly has healing qualities that eager crowds gather to receive during an annual celebration.
The bones of St. Nicholas in Bari
Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice also claims to have the bones of St. Nick. In Venice, the Church of St. Nicholas has fragments left behind when the bones were stolen from Myra. And to complicate things even further, a team of Turkish archaeologists recently discovered what they believe may be the tomb of Nicholas beneath a church in Antalya, the region where he is believed to have lived.
“His alleged teeth and finger bones are cherished relics in over a dozen churches in places including Russia, France, and the Palestinian territories,” Brian Handwerk writes for National Geographic. “Notable among them was New York City’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, which was destroyed during the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The relics were never recovered.”
A fragment of pelvis residing in St. Martha of Bethany Church in Morton Grove, Illinois, is also said to belong to the saint. And, unlike other remains, recent tests support the claim.
Oxford has completed radio carbon testing of the bone, which was originally from a church in France. The results dated it to the 4th century. Nicholas is believed to have died around 343 AD, so that places the bone in the correct era. This is of particular interest because typically, when relics are tested, they turn out to be much too recent. These results at least show that this bone is from the right period of time, making its authenticity more likely.
“And the researchers now want to use DNA testing to see how many bones are really from a single individual – and how many might be linked to the bone tested in Oxford,” BBC reports. “The Oxford team are interested in whether the part of the pelvis they have tested matches the relics in Bari, where the collection does not include a full pelvis.”
Related: Santa the Turkish Necromancer