The Americans who trekked to California in covered wagons in the 1840s and later made that arduous journey because they wanted to find a better life for themselves and their children, but they carried their culture with them: their religious beliefs, social ideals, and customs.
And they brought Santa Claus with them, too.
By time the great overland migration began, 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, dating back to 1624 when the Dutch, who settled in today’s New York, brought their holiday tradition of a gift-giving Sinterklaas. He was a fictitious figure, but 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. The Dutch observed a gift-giving day 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, on December 25, 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; the first American tale of an other-worldly being who flew about delivering gifts.
In 1821, a new poem titled “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight," published anonymously in the booklet A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve, captured the public’s imagination, 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.
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 California Gold Rush years and later.
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.