Growing up, I believed that a tangerine or clementine placed in the toe of a Christmas stocking was a tradition observed exclusively by our family. As an adult I learned that this was in fact a widespread tradition that may have dated back to the legend of three balls (or bags or bars or coins) of gold that the Bishop of Myra, the real Saint Nicholas, gave to three poor maidens to use as dowries. This event is depicted in an altarpiece painted between 1433 and 1435 for a monastery in Florence wherein St. Nick is shown tossing the golden orbs through the window à la Lebron James, as the ladies are putting on their boots, thus making it quite likely he scored a hit with one ball into a stocking.

In our family, Advent always began with poignant tales told by my mother, one of 10 children born to Sicilian immigrants, of how she and her siblings celebrated their version of an American Christmas (no AncestryDNA needed here). My grandparents, impoverished farmers, arrived in the States with little in the way of Christmas traditions to share with their children, and no knowledge of the trimmed tree with presents brought by Saint Nicholas — the Christmas tree wasn’t a thing in Italy until post-WWII, probably introduced by American GIs. My grandmother’s idea of a Christmas celebration was to write a wish on a piece of paper and then toss it into the stove where it would combust and go up the chimney, presumably to some rich and benign deity.

But, according to my mom, the children adapted. They went out with sled and saw and cut their own evergreen, which my grandmother allowed them to set up in an unheated storage room. Decorations were made from ads cut from the Sears catalog and pasted onto tin can lids that were then pierced with a nail and hung with string from the tree. Once decorated, the children would have to don their coats to go into the frigid room and stand around admiring their work. On the up side, my mom noted, the cold temperatures kept the tree fresh for a very long time.

My grandmother adapted as well. She bought into the hanging of stockings and each year filled them — the actual, no doubt grubby and stretched-out children’s socks — with some small, appropriate toy, a candy cane, and the orange in the toe. It was the only time of the year the children saw such an exotic fruit, which seems odd to me, given that Sicily, and Italy in general, was known for centuries for its citrus. In “The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit,” Helena Attlee’s wonderful book about Italy’s cultural history told through the history of its citrus crops, she relates one incredible story after another: the obsessive citrus collectors in Renaissance Tuscany; the rise of organized crime and murder that started out in Sicilian orange groves; the quest for bergamots in Calabria; the legendary blood oranges growing in the shadow of Mount Etna. My grandparents might not have known about Christmas trees, but they surely had an orange tree in the backyard, one full of free oranges. It must have been a shock to arrive in chilly Connecticut and find that oranges were dearer than, yes, gold.

So I, and all my children and grandchildren have either a tangerine or a clementine in our stockings to pull apart and scent the air with citrus on Christmas morning. The fresh fruit does a lot to mitigate the glut of chocolate and candy that is also consumed. Since no one buys just a couple of tangerines, we incorporate the extras into our table decor, with bowls of fresh balsam fir and white pine greens studded with bright orange fruits. Christmas morning usually means a fresh fruit melange to go with whatever insanely rich bread or pastry we’ve decided is a must-have, and sometimes we’ve gone even further and made a clementine cake to serve with Christmas dinner. It’s gorgeously colorful, with candied fruit atop a very simple cake, but the best part is, unlike other upside-down cakes, with their inherent risk of falling apart when tipped from the pan, the topping goes on top and stays there.

C L E M E N T I N E   C A K E

6 thin-skinned citrus fruits, either clementines, tangerines, atsumas or small blood oranges
12 lemon
1 cup sugar
14 tsp. sea salt
1 stick butter, plus more for the pan
34 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup flour
1 tsp. baking powder
14 tsp. salt

For topping:

Finely grate zest of one fruit and reserve for the cake batter. Cut the fruit in half and juice it; you should have 13 cup juice. Slice remaining fruits into very thin rounds, no more than 14-inch thick. Remove and discard any seeds. Combine orange juice, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and orange slices in a medium saucepan over low heat and bring to a slow simmer. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until peels are tender and the centers of the orange slices begin to become tender and translucent but are not falling apart. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the orange slices to a plate. Continue to simmer syrup until it has reduced to 12 cup.

For cake:

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 9- or 10-inch springform cake pan.

Beat butter and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy. With the mixer still running, add an egg and mix until completely incorporated before adding second egg. When the second egg is incorporated, sprinkle reserved grated zest over the batter and mix until combined. In another bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Gently mix flour mixture into batter, a little at a time, just until everything is incorporated and no white streaks of flour remain. Pour batter into the buttered cake pan and smooth the surface. Arrange the glazed oranges on the batter in a single layer. Reserve the remaining glaze in the pan. (If you have extra orange slices, they’re great with yogurt or ice cream.) Bake cake for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 350°F and bake for 35 to 40 minutes more, until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cake cool in the pan on a wire rack until warm, then — using a wooden skewer — poke holes all over the surface of the cake. Brush remaining glaze over the top, using a pastry brush. Allow cake to cool to room temperature before removing it from the pan.