Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Scientists at the University of Oxford are considering the possibility that Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus, may have been a real person. New analysis suggests the remains of the saint date to the proper historical period.
Bones purported to belong to the historical Saint Nicholas, one of the most famous and beloved early Christian saints, were first buried in 1087 in a crypt beneath the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, a church in Bari, in southern Italy.
Since his initial burial, several churches have claimed to have acquired remains of the saint. Scientists at Oxford wanted to find out whether the bones could really all be from the same person. And if so, could that person truly be Saint Nicholas?
Scientists performed tests on microfragment samples collected from one of the many bones thought to have belonged to Saint Nick. The results suggest the remains are indeed from the time of the saint's death, roughly 343 AD. The bone tested belongs to Father Dennis O'Neill, of St. Martha of Bethany Church, Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove, Illinois.
"Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest," Oxford professor Tom Higham said in a news release. "This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St. Nicholas himself."
The legend of Saint Nick can be traced to the city of Myra in Asia Minor, present-day Turkey. A wealthy man there earned a reputation for great generosity and surprise gift-giving. Some believe he was persecuted by Emperor Diocletian.
The saint became a figure of devotion for early Christians. After he died, Italian merchants brought his remains to Bari. Over the centuries, the legend of Saint Nick grew. He became the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, as well as the patron of many towns in Italy and Greece. In the 16th century, the popularity of the saint and his story in the Netherlands inspired the the legend of Father Christmas.
Though most of the saint's bones remain inside the Bari crypt, the skeleton is not complete. The missing bones include the bone, a portion of the left pelvis, owned by Father O'Neill, suggesting the remains could belong to the same person.
"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 Oxford researcher Georges 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."
Until recently, holders of the relics have resisted testing. But technology has made for less invasive procedures, allowing scientists to test only tiny fragments of the bones.
No matter how advanced technology gets, however, scientists won't be able to say for certain whether the bones belonged to the original Saint Nicholas.
"Science is not able to definitely prove that it is, it can only prove that it is not, however," Kazan said.