Click photo to enlarge
Parishioners head into St. Michael's Catholic Church before dawn for Mass in Livermore, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. A Filipino Christmas tradition Simbang Gabi is motivating people to brave the frigid pre-dawn air to attend church every morning for nine straight days leading up to Christmas Day. (Anda Chu/Staff)

LIVERMORE -- A Filipino Christmas tradition is motivating more than 100 people to walk out into the frigid pre-dawn air to attend Mass at St. Michael's Catholic Church every morning.

It's Simbang Gabi, nine straight days of Mass followed by Filipino breakfast.

"It's one of the best Filipino traditions," said the Rev. Manny Moya, a Filipino-American deacon at St. Michael's. "It prepares us for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ."

A number of Catholic parishes within the Oakland diocese are hosting Simbang Gabi Masses, including churches in Concord, Antioch, Brentwood, Danville, Fremont, Pinole, Pittsburg, El Cerrito, San Ramon, Alameda and Hayward.

Moya started going to Simbang Gabi when he was 12 years old and living in the Philippines.

"In the Philippines, it starts at 4 a.m.," said Moya, whose task as an altar server in the Philippines included ringing the church bells at 3:30 a.m. "Unlike here, it's not cold. It's good weather."

In fact, when Catholic priests in the Philippines started the nine-day pre-Christmas novena more than 400 years ago, they scheduled it before dawn because farmers wanted to attend. The farmers could not start their workday later because by midday the heat was unbearable. Now, getting that early start has become a symbol of personal sacrifice, especially for Filipino-Americans living in colder climates.

Fred Pedro, 42, of Dublin, has been attending Livermore's Simbang Gabi for three years. He has to be in San Francisco for work at 8 a.m. but doesn't let that deter him from attending the services.

"I want to do the early Mass because that's the way we do it in the Philippines," said Pedro.

Alona Paneda, 21, of Livermore, considered skipping Simbang Gabi this year because she is studying for college final exams. But she decided not to break a tradition that for her started when she was growing up in the Philippines.

"When you wake up you should praise God," said Paneda. "All the Filipinos reunite and it's such a good feeling. I never thought there would be that many Filipinos in Livermore."

Rhoda Pereira, of Livermore, is bringing her 6-year-old daughter Cedalia to Simbang Gabi for the third straight year.

"It's good to instill in my daughter the Filipino traditions," said Pereira.

For Remigio Liboon, 71, attending Simbang Gabi helps him feel more at home as he spends the holidays here in the U.S. visiting his daughter.

"In the Philippines, I never miss Simbang Gabi," Liboon said.

Some attendees are not of Filipino heritage.

"I think it's a good tradition because it helps us focus on Jesus," said Rhoda's husband, Mike Pereira, whose parents hailed from Portugal. "Spain and Portugal have a nine-day novena also. It's kind of like a baby shower for the Virgin Mary."

The Filipino-American priest that started the Livermore Simbang Gabi four years ago, the Rev. Augusto Acob, recently transferred to become the chaplain at Washington Hospital in Fremont.

The Rev. Robert Mendonca, pastor of St. Michael's Church, agreed to preside over the early morning masses despite caring for his sick mother. He told his congregation that he was pleasantly surprised to see so many people in the church at that hour singing cheerful Christmas songs in the Filipino language of Tagalog.

If You Go
What: Simbang Gabi, a nine-day special Mass before Christmas
Where: St. Michael's Church, 458 Maple St., Livermore
When: 5:30 a.m. each day through Dec. 24
Info: www.catholicvoiceoakland.org; search at bottom left for "Simbang Gabi 2012"

East Bay Simbang Gabi Novenas
Through Dec. 24
Pleasanton: St. Augustine, 3999 Bernal Ave., Dec. 22, 6 a.m.
San Ramon: St. Joan of Arc, 2601 San Ramon Valley Blvd., 7 p.m. Dec. 16-23, 5:30 a.m. Dec. 24.
Hayward: Both St. Joachim, Hesperian St. and St. Bede (Patrick St.), 5:30 a.m.
Alameda: St. Philip Neri-St. Albert the Great, 1022 Holly St., 5 a.m.
Antioch: St. Ignatius, 3351 Contra Loma Blvd., 5 a.m.
El Cerrito: St. John the Baptist, 11150 San Pablo Ave., 7 p.m.
Fremont: Our Lady of Guadalupe, 40382 Fremont Blvd., 6 a.m.
Pinole: St. Joseph, 837 Tennent Ave., 5 a.m.
Pittsburg: Church of the Good Shepherd, 3200 Harbor St., 5:30 p.m.
Rodeo/Hercules: St. Patrick, 825 Seventh St., 5 a.m.