A fragment of bone said to belong to the man who inspired the figure of Father Christmas could really be from the saint, scientists say.
The relic, a piece of pelvis bone, is owned by Father Dennis O’Neill, from Illinois, and has been tested by researchers at the University of Oxford to establish its age.
Rather than finding it’s significantly younger than early estimations, the radiocarbon testing dates the piece to the fourth century AD, close to when Saint Nicholas died in 343 AD.
The team at the university cannot prove for certain it is the saint, but they can pinpoint the era it is from.
Professor Tom Higham, director of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre, 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.
“Science is not able to definitely prove that it is, it can only prove that it is not, however.”
St Nicholas is one of the most revered Christian saints, and is thought to have lived in Myra, which is now Turkey.
He was said to be a wealthy man who was known for his generosity, which inspired the story of Father Christmas bringing presents to children on Christmas Eve.
Most of his remains are in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, and though they have been there since 1087, several churches around the world have acquired some of the fragments.
Dr Georges Kazan, another director at the Oxford Relics Cluster, said the results would encourage them to test other relics from Bari and Venice, to show if they are the same person.
He added: “It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could in fact be genuine.”