Perhaps one of the “sweetest” Christmas traditions is holiday baking. The preparation, presentation, and giving of treats is a treasured time for many of us. It certainly is for me. Thankfully, my mother exampled and nurtured for me and my five sisters the love of Christmas baking. Though we would try a few new recipes periodically, there were a few favored family cookie recipes that would never be replaced.

Several years ago, my dear friend and I set aside a Christmas cookie baking day with our daughters. We each chose a few of our family favorite recipes and supplied the ingredients for those cookies. In good humor, we were competing for the “best Christmas cookie” award. I was certain my mom’s recipes would win any taste test.

Upon completion of our first batches of spritz cookies, I was shocked that my mom’s recipe was not how I remembered. Though I could barely admit it, my friend’s had a better flavor. Impossible! Each of my recipes failed the final taste test. They were almost bad enough to throw away . . . I certainly wasn’t going to wrap them up and give them as gifts. I was discouraged on more than one level.

Quite perplexed, I packed up my ingredients and went home. As I put the ingredients in my pantry, I placed the clear, large container of what I thought was the flour in its place. How could the flour already be there? If my flour has been in the pantry all day, then what had I been using? Pancake mix!

All day, unknowingly, I had been baking the cookies with pancake mix instead of flour! With a tired laugh of disbelief, I realized in an instant why my cookies were a failure. I had unknowingly substituted the main ingredient for a heavy, sweetened, premade pancake mix! It looked the same. Smelled similar. I didn’t realize the mistake until it was far too late, when the awful cookies were finished. The time and expense of it all was wasted. Sadly, not a single cookie would be enjoyed.

This Christmas, I have no doubt that many of us will be carrying on this favorite holiday tradition with our friends, daughters, and grandchildren. Learn from my mistake: double check your ingredients! But there is a far greater spiritual lesson from that baking day. The Bible says that the “main ingredient” in all we do has to be love. The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that we can do a lot of really good things. But if we leave out love, it profits us nothing.

In this Christmas season, when our hearts’ desire is to give, I hope we all can remember to keep the main purpose intact. It’s not the extravagance of the gift. It is the substance. Whether sharing baked goods, the giving of gifts, serving those in need—whatever it is that we offer as a gift this Christmas—don’t substitute, or leave out altogether, the main ingredient: love.

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” —1 Corinthians 13:1–8