The Americans who trekked to California in covered wagons made that arduous journey because they wanted to find a better life for themselves and their children. Yet they carried, across the prairies, the fundamentals of the lives they were leaving behind: their religious beliefs, social ideals, and customs—in other words, their culture.
And so, they brought Santa Claus with them, too.
By the time the great overland migration began in the 1840s, the custom of a magical being who delivered gifts to children all over the world on Christmas Eve was already long established in the eastern United States. In 1624, when the Dutch settled in New York (then the Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam), they brought their holiday custom of a gift-giving Sinterklaas, a fictitious figure based on Saint Nicholas, a real-life, first century A.D. Christian bishop of Greek descent, known for his love of children and his generous gifts to those in need.
Dutch folklore portrayed Sinterklaas as an elderly, stately gentleman with white hair and a long, flowing beard, who wore a long red cape over a traditional bishop’s alb. He rode a white horse, and carried a big red ledger in which he recorded whether each child had been good or naughty over the past year. Traditionally, his gifts to deserving children took place on December 5, the Christian Feast Day of Saint Nicholas in Europe.
In 1804, the New York Historical Society chose Saint Nicholas as their patron saint, and encouraged its members to exchange gifts in the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition—but at Christmas, instead of December 5th. Then in 1809, author Washington Irving, in his popular book A History of New York, spun a tale wherein Saint Nicholas magically soared over the trees in a wagon.
Twelve years later, in 1821, a new poem published anonymously in the booklet A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve, captured the public’s imagination. Titled "Old Santeclaus with Much Delight," it was an illustrated children’s poem featuring an imaginary person who dressed in fur and traveled about in a sleigh pulled by one reindeer. A second poem, published in the New York Sentinel in December 1823—a poem which in time became better known as “The Night Before Christmas”—portrayed Saint Nicholas as a chubby, jolly old elf driving a miniature sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (the last two names later changed to Donner and Blitzen).
By the mid-1840s, Americans were associating the poem’s character in “Old Santeclaus,” with gift-giving at Christmas. In 1845 “Kris Kringle” was a common variant of the name, and there were others, in various parts of the country, though early San Francisco newspapers used the name Santa Claus in their Christmas articles during the Gold Rush. In those years, California was virtually an all-male society, mostly made up of men who were far away from their families. Newspaper editors regaled the homesick with fond memories of past Christmas childhoods, when kiddies hung “capacious” stockings near the fireplace, labeled with their names in order to give the good saint no more trouble than possible.
As the decades passed, the popular image of Santa Claus evolved into a large, heavy-set person, standardized by the early 1900s as a white-bearded, plump, jolly man who wears a red suit with white fur trim; a benevolent character associated with charity and philanthropy—but always the icon of a wondrous Christmas for the children.