Lulu’s Fifty-Peso Christmas Gift

Lulu Reyes Besa was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the United States in 1947, cited as "one of the outstanding heroines of World War II." (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Lulu Reyes Besa was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the United States in 1947, cited as "one of the outstanding heroines of World War II." (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Christmas was her loneliest holiday. Her father’s ship sank on December 24 as he headed home to his young family. She was five; her brothers were aged three and two and another sibling was on the way. Her pregnant mother, Luz, was 21 and devastated to hear of the boat sinking. The children never forgot the image of their mother sobbing by the Christmas tree. This was the story of my mother, Lourdes “Lulu” Reyes Besa. Her father, Judge Ponciano Reyes Sr., the first judge of Zamboanga City, died on Christmas Eve.

It was the sad memory of Christmas that made my mom, Lulu, then a young woman in 1947, walk around the Escolta, Manila’s shopping mecca at the time. World War II had ended. It was liberation in Manila.  Lulu hoped to find solace in the tinsel and glitter at the stores. As jolly carols resonated from nearby, Lulu checked the crisp 50-peso bill she had, a gift from an American serviceman given in gratitude. During the war, she was helping American and Filipino soldiers who survived the Bataan Death March by bringing medicine to soldiers in concentration camps. Her own brother Willie was incarcerated and survived the ordeal.

Lulu did not feel right about spending the money on herself. The country was recovering from the war, and people had lost family and property. She wanted to make sure the money went to something important. 

Suddenly, she stopped in her tracks. She saw a family staring longingly at a brightly decorated window. The mother looked tired. The nine children of different ages, obviously hers, peered into the store display. They were dressed simply, a sharp contrast to the smartly dressed shoppers bustling about, carrying brightly wrapped packages. Something about this family made Lulu sense they were not buying. They were just looking. An idea lit in her heart. Lulu approached the family.

"Ma'am, are these your children?" Lulu smiled at the woman. After exchanging pleasantries, Lulu found out the woman was a widow. A sympathetic chord struck Lulu's soul. The woman reminded her of her own widowed mama; the children brought back images of herself and her brothers when they were little. There were sad holidays when funds were scarce and her mama had to find creative ways to stretch the budget to give the family a happy Christmas. 

Lulu then decided the 50-peso bill belonged to this woman and her family. She handed it to the widow. "This was given to me by an American officer in gratitude for the charity work I did for prisoners in concentration camps. I want you and your children to have it. Merry Christmas," Lulu told her.

The woman and her children were overjoyed. Lulu's heart leapt at the happiness she gave this family. She then hurried along to make it in time for Christmas Eve Mass with her mother and brothers. 

Every Christmas my mom, Lulu, shared this story with us. Though she was simply Mom to me, to others, Lulu Reyes Besa was one of the most outstanding women of her time. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the United States in 1947 and cited by Major General Moore as "one of the outstanding heroines of WWII." As president of the Chaplains’ Aid Association from 1942-45, Lulu Reyes headed the Crusades of Charity, bringing medicine to POWs in concentration camps.

Lulu Reyes Besa and daughter, Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, author (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Lulu Reyes Besa and daughter, Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, author (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

In 1946, Lulu became co-founder (along with Miss Baby Quezon) and president of the YLAC, Young Ladies Association of Charity. They built free elementary schools around the Philippines with religion an integral subject. She received the Ateneo Ozanam Award in 1953 for her Catholic Social Action achievements.

Lulu Reyes Besa, YLAC (Young Ladies Association of Charity) co-founder and president (fifth from left) with President Elpidio Quirino and YLAC members (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Lulu Reyes Besa, YLAC (Young Ladies Association of Charity) co-founder and president (fifth from left) with President Elpidio Quirino and YLAC members (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

In 1958, Lulu helped founders and the Redemptorists priests raise money to build the National Shrine of Our Perpetual Help in Baclaran. She received the Fleur de Lis Award from her alma mater St. Paul College of Manila (now SPU) for civic service. She was also a recipient of the Papal Award Pro Ecclesia for her religious work.

Lulu later found out the widowed mother she helped that Christmas Eve of 1947 was Pelagia Villaflor Soliven. One of Pelagia’s sons was Max Soliven, who became one of the most influential Philippine journalists. He wrote his version of this story in his column. When Mom died in 1981, Mr. Soliven reprinted the story of the 50-peso gift in his Christmas column. 

The Ozanam award Lulu Reyes received from the Ateneo de Manila described her best: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Mom is gone now but her Christmas story moves me to tears every holiday. Her memory shines brightly in my heart. She gave happiness that Christmas of 1947 to one special family.

Lulu Reyes Besa was awarded Ateneo's Ozanam Award in 1953 for her work as president of the Chaplains' Aid Association, heading the Crusades for Charity who brought medicines to POWs in World War II concentration camps. (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Lulu Reyes Besa was awarded Ateneo's Ozanam Award in 1953 for her work as president of the Chaplains' Aid Association, heading the Crusades for Charity who brought medicines to POWs in World War II concentration camps. (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Lulu Reyes Besa, together with Redemptorist priest Fr. Dennis O'Leary, and generous benefactors, helped built the National Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran in 1958. (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)

Lulu Reyes Besa, together with Redemptorist priest Fr. Dennis O'Leary, and generous benefactors, helped built the National Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran in 1958. (Photo courtesy of the Lulu Reyes Besa family)


Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.


More articles by Elizabeth Ann Quirino:

Bold New Pinoy Restaurants in New York
April 24, 2013
Restaurants that put a new spin on Pinoy street food.

A Hundred Mangoes In A Bottle
May 8, 2013
There’s nothing like Philippine mangoes to awaken memories of a happy home life.

Hearth Angel
July 10, 2013
Her video blogs will make your eatery a success.

Day Trips To Culinary Heaven
August 1, 2013
For a truly enjoyable balikbayan vacation, go native.

Like Eating At Mom’s
August 20, 2013
At two Pinoy restaurants in midtown Manhattan, you can eat at home without going home.

The Secret Of Restaurant 101
October 2, 2013
For fine French cuisine you can’t go wrong with the creations of student chefs at Restaurant 101. 

Bank Exec Nina Aguas: Woman Of Influence
December 6, 2013
How one woman “kept her eyes on the prize” and found professional success. 

Our Christmas Table
December 20, 2013
What Filipinos love to eat during the holiday season.

Dauntless In Dubai
March 3, 2014
Filipina engineer Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi towers in Dubai.

Prep Globally, Cook Locally
April 17, 2014
Why Erwin Joven is a five-star chef.

Purple Yam Spreads The Love
July 26, 2014
Purple Yam cuisine’s main ingredient is caring. It’s also now available in Manila.

The Old Lady And The Balete Tree
October 28, 2014
Who was that old woman in black that appeared near our old balete tree?

She Came, She Ate, She Wrote A Cookbook
November 11, 2014
Yasmin Newman, Australian-Filipina author of 7000 Islands,was supposed to stay only weeks in the Philippines. She ended up staying for six months and writing a cookbook.

Have Filipino Food, Will Travel
December 9, 2014
Chef Yana Gilbuena’s pop-up dinner may just turn up in your city. Bring your appetites when she does.