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  • Writer's pictureGiacomino Nicolazzo


How long should we pay for our mistakes?

How many years should we punish ourselves for the failures we’ve experienced in life?

These are rhetorical questions of course...the answers depend on the severity of the mistake or the gravity of the failure. But one thing can be agreed upon. Sooner or later we really must put these burdens down and get on with things, lest we be forever defined and judged and imprisoned by our imperfections.

Life goes on...time waits for no man...and all those other meaningless/meaningful platitudes!

I had the oddest of thoughts cross my mind yesterday evening as I watched Italy celebrating the arrival of the New Year and the anticipation of La Befana who will visit the children in the coming days. I would guess that not many of you outside Italy know of, appreciate or practice this little tradition on the eve of the Catholic celebration of the Epiphany, the remembrance of the Magi’s visit to Christ’s manger.

So first off, let me bring you up to speed...

The legend of La Befana began thousands of years ago. It remains to this day a tradition celebrated by Italian children and their families. As the story goes, word had spread far and wide that a child was to be born in Bethlehem...a child who would grow up to change the world and alter man’s destiny.

There were three Magi, gifted and wise men, who heard of this child’s coming birth and they were compelled to leave their country. Bearing special gifts for the new-born of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they set off in search of him.

They traveled for days and nights, guided by a star arcing across the sky and spanning several countries. At every village to which they came, more and more people ran to meet them...all deciding that their destiny too was to accompany the wise men on their journey.

But in one of those villages there was an old woman who chose not to join the Magi, claiming she was simply too busy with her housework and other chores to go on such a gallivanting journey.

The wise men explained the purpose and importance of their long trek, but the old woman remained undeterred. To get rid of them, she hastily promised to join them later...when her chores were done and she could find the time.

The Magi bid her farewell and left at dusk with the others to continue following that star.

For reasons we do not know, the next day the old woman was overcome with sadness and fear, realizing the gravity of her mistake. Frantically she closed up her home and still clutching her broom, ran after the Magi with her own gifts to give to this most precious and divine child. But it was too late...the Magi were long gone. The tracks of their camels had been erased by the desert winds and she had no idea which way they may have traveled.

Ever since that fateful day, the old woman has been known as La Befana. On the eve of January 6th, La Befana flies from house to house on that old broomstick, still searching for that most special child.

She comes late at night, turning herself into glittering particles of light and descends the chimneys of all the homes in Italy where children live.

She gazes upon them as they sleep, never sure if she looking at that special child or not. To make sure she never makes the same mistake again, she leaves behind all the gifts she did not give to the Holy Child. She then ascends the chimney, heading for the next house...

Way back in years when my grandparents were children here in Italy, La Befana was tremendously popular and was awaited each Eve of the Epiphany with a mixture of great joy and hopeful anxiety.

As children, they hung their hand-knitted stockings on the fireplace mantel and wrote long letters to the old woman, expressing in the greatest of detail their wishes. But more often than not they were disappointed when they woke in the morning. Their parents had little money to spend on the lavish gifts of which their children dreamed.

But there was always something in the stockings in the morning when they woke. Sometimes they found little hand-sewn dolls and puppets. There was pieces of fruit and hand made candy. And of course there was the caveat, as there always is!

If the children had been bad throughout the year, they would wake to find their stockings filled with onions, garlic and coal.

Children of today here in Italy know La Befana as an old woman who flies on a broom and wears a black shawl over a dress dirty with the soot from chimneys she’s climbed down to deliver her gifts.

For the good children she brings sweets, toys and books. And as in the past, for the bad children she brings onions, garlic and a black candy known as carbone which has taken the place of the coal.

Many people still believe in La Befana here, while others believe it is just a fanciful story created to amuse them and for their parents to get them to behave. But either way, she still tries in vain to atone for her mistake.

So what, might you ask, were my odd thoughts about La Befana? I am glad you asked and am happy to elaborate...

How long, I asked myself, should La Befana go on paying for the mistake she made more than 2000 years ago? When will enough be enough?

To err is human. To forgive, divine. But to continue to err in the same manner is insanity. To fail to learn from our mistakes and failures is well, sheer  inanity!

How many of us still look back on the mistakes we’ve made throughout our lives and wonder...

“What the hell was I thinking?”

And how many more precious moments are we going to waste punishing ourselves, over and over and over, for things over which we have no control and that just don’t matter anymore?

I personally am not proud of many of the decisions I’ve made in my past. I wish I could go back in time and change them and the consequences they brought. But I can’t...none of us can! Sadly, all we can do is let go of the past and move on.

Making a mistake is never a bad thing, but punishing ourselves endlessly for it is insane. And it does damage. It leaves us feeling hollow and broken. So why do we do it? Why do we keep on punishing ourselves? Isn’t it time to stop getting back into the boxing ring with ourselves and allowing our ego to beat us up mercilessly?

The best way I know to stop this from happening is to simply accept the mistake...accept it, embrace it for what it was, forgive ourselves for making it and learn the lesson it was meant to teach us.

We must promise ourselves that we will do whatever we must to develop the wisdom and good sense to make better decisions and choices in the future. Learning valuable lessons from our mistakes and failures is the only way to develop good judgment and life without good judgments means a life of sadness and regret.

Unfortunately for many of us, we are like La Befana. We will continue to punish ourselves and second guess our decisions forever, without ever learning the lesson our mistakes were meant to teach us.

Good or bad, our mistakes and failures are what help make us all better people.

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