My siblings and I grew up in Germany in the 1960s, children of U.S. Foreign Service parents. (My two older brothers had other, earlier, foreign postings with my parents, but that's another story.)
Every year, on the evening of the 5th of December —the evening before St. Nicholas Day— we would put a pair of wooden shoes outside our bedroom doors. Overnight, an unseen, be-sainted visitor would fill our shoes with chocolates and other goodies ... if we had been good. If we had been bad, we might receive only a lump of coal.
My brothers had a Märklin model train set. Once (just once!), I found my shoe filled with a lump of coal. Unperturbed, little Tommy put the lump in the coal car behind the locomotive. He was ecstatic. It was the coolest thing. It was "ace"! To my parent's (err, St. Nicholas') chagrin, he hadn't been chastised.
In a —not so politically correct— postscript, a Moorish sidekick of St. Nicholas was to abduct those children who had not behaved well over the previous year, and take them to Spain. If you know northern German winters, this threatened punishment, in retrospect, would not be so bad.
In the Catholic Church, Nicholas is the patron saint of brewers. The reason why, however, is not so clear. David Turley at Musings Over A Pint has posted this explanation:
Tradition states that Nicholas [Bishop of Myra] was having a beer at an inn where the inn keeper had murdered three boys and packed their bodies in a barrel of brine. Nicholas was offered some salted meat with his beer. Due to a local shortage of food, Nicholas became suspicious, found the bodies, and brought the boys back to life. He died on December 6, 345 A.D. or 352 A.D.
St. Nicholas eventually became the inspiration for the American Santa Claus.
Many years after those days in Germany, on one Christmas Eve in Baltimore, Maryland, my stepdaughter carefully placed not a shoe by the Christmas tree, but a beer for Old Saint Nick. He must have been thirsty. In the morning, the glass was empty.