All through the dark, frozen night they keep coming, by bus or by car or simply trudging on foot through the deep snow.

Like Muslims to Mecca, like Hindus to the Ganges, like Americans to Disney World, they are pilgrims drawn to a sacred hilltop a mile from town on a holy day: Gobbler's Knob on Groundhog Day. Many have fortified themselves against the 18-degree cold by ingesting the traditional brews that contain the sacred spirits that bring warmth and mirth.

One of the mirthful is Ricky Saum, 35, who made the pilgrimage from Manhattan. "Rock-and-roll!" he bellows into the night.

He's standing with Theresa Featherston, 33. Together, they own an apparel company. They've come here because they love the movie "Groundhog Day," which was set in Punxsutawney.

"Now, when we watch the movie," Saum says, "we can say, 'I've been there, I saw the rat.' "

The "rat" is, of course, Punxsutawney Phil, the 118-year-old groundhog who predicts the weather every Feb. 2. Saum and Featherston are ready to see him. How did they get ready?

"Drinking," he says.

"Drinking a lot," she says.

But it's still early -- only about 5:15 in the morning. Phil is not yet ready to meet his public. The pudgy 17-pound beast is slumbering inside a stump on the wooden stage -- a special hollowed-out stump that is kept heated overnight lest the prophet catch cold. The 5,000 pilgrims are not so lucky. They stand in the cold all night, dancing to recorded rock, rap and polka songs as blue and yellow balloons bounce over their heads.

At 6:30, the sky explodes with fireworks, a dazzling light show that causes even the jaded to emit involuntary sighs: "Ooooh! Ahhhh!"

At 7:20, as dawn stains the woods pink, 14 men clad in tuxedos and top hats march toward the stage. They make up the inner circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The crowd cheers. The men gather around Phil's stump.

"All hail groundhog supremacy!" the emcee yells. "Are you ready for some weather forecasting?"

"Yeah," the crowd roars.

"If he sees his shadow," the emcee says, "it's six more weeks of winter!"

The crowd boos.

"But if he doesn't see his shadow, it's an early spring!"

The crowd cheers.

"Are you tired of winter?"

"Yeah!"

"Are you tired of cold?"

"Yeah!!"

"Do you believe in the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators, the only one true weather-forecasting groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil? Do you believe?"

"Yeah!" the crowd roars. "I believe!"

A Cure for Cabin Fever?

They've been doing this for 118 years in Punxsutawney, and for some incomprehensible reason, the world actually pays attention to it.

It is, if truth be told, a tad absurd. Traveling to Punxsutawney in February to watch a groundhog look for his shadow makes about as much sense as traveling to, say, Whitefish, Mont., in February to watch a badger break wind.

So why do thousands of people do it every year? What's the appeal?

Al Abramovic, former president of the Chamber of Commerce of Punxsutawney, population 6,300, ponders the question. He ponders for a long moment.

"I think the appeal of Groundhog Day," he says, "is that there isn't a whole heck of a lot going on this time of year."

He may be right. Winter can be brutal, especially in these mountains -- months of icy winds and dirty snow. In Saturday's issue of the daily Punxsutawney Spirit, columnist Terry A. Fye suggested "20 cures for cabin fever." They included reading the Bible, baking cookies, polishing shoes, rolling coins and this: "Get a new roll of toilet paper or a box of tissues and count to see if the number actually matches the total shown on the package."

Judged by that standard, Groundhog Day is Carnival in Rio.

It was the Punxsutawney Spirit that began this groundhog madness back in the 1880s, when Spirit editor Clymer Freas turned a local custom into a national media event.

The German immigrants who settled Punxsutawney brought a legend: If Candlemas Day -- Feb. 2 -- is sunny, spring is six weeks away, but a cloudy Candlemas signals that spring is near. Somehow, these German Americans decided that the groundhog would judge the sunniness of Candlemas by emerging from hibernation to look for its shadow. (Never mind that groundhogs naturally hibernate beyond Feb. 2, sometimes blasting through a yard of snow to emerge.)

Pennsylvania had plenty of groundhogs, but Freas, seized with turn-of-the-century boosterism, promoted Punxsutawney's groundhog as the official go-to guy, hyping him as "the seer of seers" and the "king of weather prognosticators" while touting Punxsutawney as the "weather capital of the world."

Freas also ballyhooed Punxsutawney's other groundhog celebration -- the annual September groundhog hunt and barbecue. But for some reason, eating groundhogs wasn't as appetizing to the outside world as watching them look for their shadow, and the hunt died out.

Groundhog Day thrived, chiefly because newspapers loved to run photos of guys in top hats holding cute, furry critters. And there always seemed to be some wacky new angle to the story.

In 1939, J.P. Moore, a zoology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, announced that he'd discovered why groundhogs rise from their burrows in February: to eat garlic, one of earliest plants of spring. He learned this, he claimed, by catching groundhogs near his house and pumping their stomachs.

In 1942, when German U-boats prowled the Atlantic coast, wartime censorship rules prevented newspapers from printing their annual pre-Groundhog Day weather predictions. They were allowed to publish the groundhog's prognostications, which apparently was deemed unhelpful to the Axis war effort.

In October 1980, veterinarians at the Indianapolis Zoo, which had adopted the groundhog weather tradition, performed cataract surgery on the zoo's groundhog, Charlie, so he could see his shadow come February.

Cataract surgery on a groundhog! Such is the power of the myth of Groundhog Day!

For decades, Punxsutawney had a bitter rival in the battle of groundhog hype -- Quarryville, a town in Lancaster County, Pa., which ran its own ceremony. Quarryville's Slumbering Groundhog Lodge denounced Punxsutawney's Groundhog Club as savages who ate their prophet. And every Feb. 2, members of Congress from each town took to the floor of the House of Representatives to praise their local beast while denouncing its rival as an impostor.

Quarryville still holds its ceremony every year, but nobody pays much attention because Punxsutawney won the war.

"PR -- that's how they took it away from us," says James Pennington, 77, the Hibernating Governor of the Quarryville Lodge.

The way Pennington remembers it, a TV show staged a debate between the rival towns back in the '70s and, he says, "The guy from Punxsutawney creamed our guy."

"We just kept promoting it and promoting it," says Bill Deeley, the Punxsutawney lodge's official groundhog handler.

Of course, there was also another reason: Quarryville uses a stuffed groundhog while Punxsutawney keeps Phil alive and well, residing with his wife, Phyllis, and two other groundhogs in a little glass room attached to the outside of the town library.

Deeley, who is Phil's keeper, feeds him vegetables, apples and dry dog food. Most groundhogs live only about five years but Phil is 118, Deeley swears, given eternal life by drinking shots of a magic elixir. The elixir doesn't work on humans, which is good for Deeley's business. He is a funeral director.

Occasionally, Phil bites the hand that feeds him. "I've got plenty of scars," says Deeley. "Mostly he bites when he gets tired."

Groundhogs -- aka woodchucks, whistlepigs or marmots -- may look warm and cuddly but they're nasty little suckers. A scientist who studied their lifestyle in the 1980s reported that they engaged in an average of one act of violence per day.

Farmers hate groundhogs because they tear up gardens, eat vegetables and dig holes that livestock are prone to step in and cause injuries. In 1936, a Middletown, Md., newspaper publisher formed the Anti-Ground Hog Association, which urged President Franklin Roosevelt to start a New Deal agency that would put the unemployed to work killing groundhogs. In 1951, an editorial in The Washington Post denounced the groundhog as "a cadger, a deadbeat, a bum," and quoted the National Geographic, which called the beast "a menace to America's food supply."

Today, the groundhog is more popular, thanks largely to Punxsutawney. And Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney is more popular, thanks largely to a movie called "Groundhog Day."

Released in 1993, it starred Bill Murray as a snotty TV weatherman who finds himself endlessly reliving his least favorite day -- Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. Despite the premise of the movie -- that the whole ritual is dumb -- Punxsutawney's Groundhog Day crowds have soared from about 2,000 in '93 to an average of 10,000. When the big day falls on a weekend, crowds can top 20,000.

"The movie cranked it up," says Deeley.

Now, crowds flock to Punxsutawney from as far away as Japan, Australia and Europe. This year, Daniele Acosta, 32, an Italian working as a waiter in Tampa, came to Gobbler's Knob, carrying a sign that read, "Italy Loves Phil."

"It's beautiful," he said. "The people are just amazing and it's full of things that make you feel better. Beautiful!"

Punxsutawney welcomes the pilgrims with a two-day festival that includes hayrides, a scavenger hunt, exhibitions of whittling and ice sculpting and endless screenings of "Groundhog Day."

Of course, there are also plenty of groundhog knickknacks -- T-shirts, hats, plush toys that make groundhog squeals when squeezed -- even authentic groundhog jerky, made from authentic Punxsutawney groundhogs.

"It's a 'novelty thing,' " says Don Williams, co-owner of Phil's Country Groundhog Jerky, making little air quotes with his fingers.

His main business is beef and hogs, he says, but he also raises about 500 head of groundhog.

"This time of year," he explains, "everything has to be groundhog."

The most popular souvenirs are groundhog Beanie Babies. There are two kinds -- one sold everywhere you can buy any Beanie Babies, the other available only in Punxsutawney. Sales figures are a closely guarded secret, but Mike Johnston of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club says the club made so much money on Beanie Babies last year that it was able to purchase the Gobbler's Knob site where it holds its annual ceremony, which it had previously rented.

But there was one problem last year: The special Punxsutawney babies sold out almost immediately, and some collectors left empty-handed got as nasty as a groundhog. "I had death threats from two women who were not able to obtain Punxsutawney Phil Beanies for their children," says Johnston. "They told me they hoped I would die and rot in hell."

That was surprising, Johnston says, but not as surprising as the number of people who want to get married on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney -- about 10 couples a year.

"I've had people in motorcycle jackets and people in tuxedos," says Punxsutawney Mayor James "Snake" Wehrle, who performs the weddings in the Civic Center, just down the hall from a room with a sign identifying it as "Sewer Rental Office." "It tends to be people on their second or third marriage.

"They figure, 'Been here, done that, let's go to Punxsutawney,' " Johnston adds, laughing.

Among the eight couples scheduled to be married this Feb. 2 were Jerry and Debbie Smith, both 48, from Culloden, W.Va.

"I said, 'Let's get married on Valentine's Day' and he said, 'Let's do something different and get married on Groundhog Day,' " says Debbie Smith, a nurse. "I said, 'That's a good idea.' I love groundhogs. They're the cutest little things."

So they got married on Groundhog Day in 1995. But last February, they divorced. Then they got back together and decided to marry on Groundhog Day again, this time in Punxsutawney.

"We always wanted to come here on Groundhog Day," says Jerry Smith, who works as a church caretaker. "So why not get married in the groundhog capital of the world?"

Judgment Day

Up on Gobbler's Knob, the crowd is chanting, "Phil! Phil! Phil! Phil!"

"The Great Oz of weather forecasting will awake soon," the emcee promises. He introduces William Cooper, president of the Groundhog Club.

"Are we ready?" Cooper asks the crowd.

"Yeah!"

Cooper knocks on the door of Phil's stump with the magic acacia wood cane that enables him to translate groundhog-ese when Phil tells him whether he saw his shadow. Then Deeley opens the door. He reaches inside. He pulls Phil out and holds him over his head.

The crowd roars.

Deeley sets Phil down atop the sacred stump. Cooper leans in to hear the seer's prophesy. The club has prepared two prophetic scrolls, one for shadow and one for no shadow. Phil instructs Cooper to choose the scroll on the left. Cooper follows the command, unrolls the left scroll and reads the verse inscribed upon it:

I'm glad I live in this luxurious burrow on the Knob,

And not in a dirty, smelly spider hole like a slob.

When I come out, I don't want to negotiate,

But to just do my job and prognosticate.

Today because my shadow I see,

Six more weeks of winter there will be.

The crowd groans. The disappointment is palpable.

"I'm out of here," somebody mutters.

Suddenly, as if commanded by some inaudible voice, nearly everybody turns their backs to the pig and stampedes for the buses, trudging off toward a grim future of more winter, more cold and, perhaps, more nights spent counting how many tissues are in a box.

After the mass exodus, a few hundred people remain. They climb onstage to take a closer look at Phil, who holds court in a glass box, looking as plump and aloof as a pasha, while the PA system plays "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

By now, the sun that cast Phil's shadow has risen higher in the sky, which is a dazzling blue, and for a moment at least, it is possible to feel a hint of spring in the air.

Bill Deeley, the official groundhog handler, presents the main attraction to the crowd at Gobbler's Knob yesterday.Punxsutawney Groundhog Club president William Cooper gets the official 2004 forecast from Phil, held by Bill Deeley, as chilly onlookers, right, await the annoucement. Below, Fred Ungar, left, and Barry Edwards light up the predawn sky with their Phil affection.