MANILA - As the bells of a big Catholic church just south of Manila began to toll at around 4am, thousands were already at the gates of the National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help to heed the call.
A queue at least 400m long had formed just outside the church's walls.
Over 2,000 worshippers eventually made it inside the church's cavernous hall and onto its sprawling grounds for the 4.30am mass.
Many more stood outside, behind its wrought-iron gates.
In normal times, the church could accommodate up to 10,000 devotees. But these are extraordinary times.
Across this predominantly Catholic archipelago, churches began holding pre-dawn masses - known here as the "misa de gallo" or "mass of the rooster" - in the run-up to Christmas.
The masses will be held for nine straight days from Wednesday (Dec 16), culminating with the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
At the National Shrine The Straits Times visited in Baclaran district, Paranaque city (also known as the Baclaran church), there was an abundance of caution following an uptick in coronavirus infections in recent weeks.
About 100 policemen and dozens of marshals moved among the crowd, making sure everyone had masks and face shields on, were at least a metre apart, and not touching or kissing the holy relics inside the church.
Those lucky enough to sit on the pews were spaced an arm's length from each other. Those outside stood on blue and green markings painted on the ground, forming long lines akin to military formations.
As with other churches across the Philippines, the mass at the Baclaran church was also live-streamed for those who would rather not take the chance and prefer to participate from their homes.
Although cases of Covid-19 here have retreated to below 1,500 a day, and the death rate has fallen to less than 2 per cent in recent weeks, experts said earlier this week they were already seeing signs of an uptick in infections ahead of the holidays.
"There are indicators... that seem to show that an uptick might already be starting. We don't have the full details yet because again these are just indicators," said Dr Guido David, head of the Octa Research Group run by state-owned University of the Philippines.
He said the Philippines could still end the year with close to 500,000 cases.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque on Wednesday told reporters the R naught in 12 cities in Metro Manila have inched past 1, suggesting a faster rate of infections.
The Healthy Ministry has already told hospitals to set aside more beds for a possible surge in infections in January, after the holidays.
Despite the warnings and restrictions, turnout for the year's first dawn mass was surprisingly heavy.
"We were expecting less, but people came. Because of the pandemic, we thought... people would be discouraged," said Father Ino Cueto, 55, one of the Redemptorist priests who oversee the Baclaran church.
He said the pandemic had probably added urgency to turning to God for deliverance.
"We still don't know when this will all end. So for now, all we have is our faith. That, I think, is the source of our hope and courage to fight Covid-19," he said.
Father Cueto said the dawn masses are also an opportunity for the Catholic church to pay tribute to frontline health workers.
A life-size Nativity scene straddling a garden at the church has the three mages geared up in personal protective equipment.
"Our frontliners are risking their lives for us. That is their Christmas gift to us, and we want to celebrate that. Many of our frontliners have already lost their lives.
"There is where the spirit of Christmas truly lies: We should always be ready and willing to give ourselves for the sake of others," said Father Cueto.
Attending dawn masses for nine straight days till Christmas Eve is a revered tradition here that dates back to when the Philippines was a colony of Spain in the 17th century.
Devotees try to attend every single mass with the hope that a special, personal request will be granted by Christmas day.
For Ms Erica Palmos, 18, that wish is simply to see herself, her family and friends stay safe and well.
"I just pray we all live through this pandemic, and everything goes back to normal soon," she said.