Fifty years ago, Atlanta Ballet’s love affair with The Nutcracker began. In 1959, Atlanta ballet’s second artistic director, Robert Barnett, brought George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker to Atlanta.

“We gave it as a gift, inviting children from all [local] counties to come in and see the performance,” Barnett remembers. “It was a gift from Mr. Balanchine, and he never charged us a cent for doing it.”

In 1995, Atlanta Ballet’s third artistic director, John McFall, created a brand new Nutcracker for the city of Atlanta. McFall sought to create a version that was “traditional yet new, familiar yet different, classic yet contemporary, and above all, magical.”

For one family in particular, it’s become a special holiday tradition. Atlanta Ballet dancers Kristine, Courtney and Abbie Necessary all have graced the stage in productions of the show.

Kristine, now 27, began studying with the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education when she was in the eighth grade. Courtney, 25, began studying there at age three. Years later, their younger sister Abbie followed in their footsteps, attending both the school and dancing in the Nutcracker. Now that Abbie is pursuing a medical career at Vanderbilt University, there is little time in her schedule for dance, but her sisters are still doing the “Necessary” thing to keep dance alive during the holidays.

“For me, Christmas is not Christmas without the Nutcracker,” Courtney says. “Every December we live in the theater: every meal, every morning, every day.”

This year, Kristine is dancing the Sugarplum Fairy and Dewdrop Fairy, but her first role in the ballet was that of Marya, the little girl whose love for a nutcracker opens up a whole fantasy world. Even though Courtney wasn’t centerstage in her first appearance, she remembers how exciting it was to debut in the Nutcracker.

“It was exhilarating, to my surprise,” Courtney says. “I remember being way more excited than I was nervous. It’s kind of funny because as time goes on, I get more nervous. The first time, I was just overwhelmed. [But] once I got out onstage I just wanted to be doing what I was doing.”

The biggest challenge of returning to the show year after year is retaining the same kind of excitement and wonder the dancers had the first time they danced it.

“John McFall, our artistic director, likes to change things up every season to keep it fresh and exciting for both the dancers and the audience,” Courtney says. “It’s a new feeling every year, even if you’re dancing the exact same role.”

When asked what it is like working with her sister, Courtney says, “I think it’s great, because even though everyone in the company is very close-knit and you have support from everyone, you feel like you have someone who will always back you up, always be honest with you, always be supportive of you, and someone just to share these gifts with.”

Those intimate, personal moments they share onstage make their long, five day a week rehearsal schedule worth it. But the show itself contains a lot of magic that buoys their spirits, as well.

“It’s like you’ve been rehearsing for this particular show for weeks and then when you get on stage you just kind of forget all the little things you’ve been working on and just enjoy the experience,” Courtney says. “It’s much different from rehearsal in that you are using your spirit more than just your body.”

Perhaps the power Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker has to lift people’s spirits is what has made it such a long-lasting tradition. The Necessary sisters are only two of several former child performers who have since joined the professional corps de ballet, and many families from all over the Southeast make the pilgrimage to the Fox Theatre year after year to see Atlanta Ballet’s production. This year, more than 250 young dancers from across the city will experience the magic of performing on the Fox Theatre stage for the first time. Who knows how many of them will decide to make Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker a family tradition of their own.

Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker lights up the Fox from Dec. 11 through 27.

Daniel Burnley is a stage and film actor and writer living in Decatur, Ga.