Bones long believed to have been those of the real Father Christmas might be genuine, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.
Scientists at the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College have analysed a fragment of pelvis said to belong to St Nicholas of Myra, whose life provided the basis for some Santa Claus legends.
Many fragments of his skeleton are held at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Southern Puglia, where they have been since 1087. Others are preserved in the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice, while others have found their way to different churches and collectors.
The relics in the two churches have been found to be complementary, suggesting they may have come from the same person.
The fragment analysed by the researchers belongs to Father Dennis O'Neill, of St Martha of Bethany Church, Shrine of All Saints, in Morton Grove Illinois, US. The relic originally came from Lyon in France.
Using radio-carbon dating, the bone was found to have dated from the 4th century AD. St Nicholas is believed to have died in 343 AD, meaning the relics could in principle be authentic.
One of the researchers, Prof Tom Higham, 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.'
Work has revealed that the bone has been venerated for almost 1700 years, making it one of the oldest relics that the Oxford team has ever analysed.
The university's Relics Cluster is a multi-disciplinary team aimed at improving understanding of relics. It has worked on fragments claimed to be from the True Cross, the Turin Shroud, St Chad and St David. It is undertaking research on relics claimed to be from John the Baptist.