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Reworking a Christmas Classic

A musical at Burke Community Church centers around characters from the original Christmas story, with a familiar tune.

With the help of author Bonnie Fite and the children of Burke Community Church, the 12 days of Christmas are getting a makeover this season. A traveling musical featuring a whole-new cast of characters and based on a popular book is heading to several area locations.

Fite, who lives in Clifton and attends Burke Community Church, wrote the musical, based on a book called "The 12 New Days of Christmas," which she wrote and published in 2001.

Fite hatched the idea for the book during a family car ride with her three children in 1997, when she got stumped trying to recall the words to the song "The 12 Days of Christmas."

"I said, 'You know kids, I don't know if it's 10 drummers or pipers, or whatever. Maybe we could come up with a whole new batch of characters,'" said Fite, an author who runs the nonprofit organization Profound Promises, an extension of her career as a classroom teacher.

In the car rides that followed that trip, Fite and her family worked out new lyrics to the traditional Christmas song, so the "three French hens" became "three wise men," and so on, to reflect the characters from the traditional Christmas story.

For Fite, it was important to keep these characters in her Christmas story and songs.

The idea remained a manuscript. Full-color illustrations were added and the book was published in 2001.

"It's a fun way to kind of make something that happened 2,000 years ago more real in today's modern world," Fite said. "It's a bridge to understand something that happened a long time ago."

The finishing touch to the book, however, was a CD, produced by Dove-award-winning children's musical arranger Don Marsh and recorded in Nashville, Tenn. The CD, which featured a recording of the song, sealed the deal, and soon the book was on shelves in nearly 60 stores in 17 states.

"'The 12 Days of Christmas' is probably the most reworked of all Christmas carols," said Fite. "It was waiting for somebody to rework it into the old Christmas story."

Once she had written the book, Fite wrote a script for a musical so it could be performed at churches and other public gatherings. Last year, it was performed at Fairfax Community Bible Church.

THIS YEAR, children from Burke Community Church are presenting six performances, beginning with two on Dec. 4 at Clifton Baptist Church and one on Dec. 6 at Fair Oaks Mall. This Sunday, the musical will be performed twice at Burke Community Church, followed by a Dec. 13 performance at 6:30 p.m. at the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C.

"We’re very excited about it, getting our children involved and seeing them participate in our worship service," said Greg Atkinson, Creative Arts pastor at Burke Community Church.

According to Fite, who directed the play, 75 children ages 5-15 are in the full production. The musical follows the story of a big sister who reads through the book with her younger brother, explaining the origins behind each of the 12 "characters" in the new book.

Michelle Brantley, whose 5-year-old son, Tyler, plays one of the "nine sheep a-bleating," said she appreciates a Christmas song that can resonate with her Christian faith and also help her son learn about the history of the story.

"Everything is based on the Christmas story, which has helped me teach my son that this is Jesus' birthday, since the holiday has become so commercialized," said Brantley.

The production is 30 minutes long and interspersed with the dialogue are traditional Christmas carols like "We Three Kings" and "Away in a Manger."

According to Brantley, 60 of the children are members of the church, while the rest are friends and neighbors of the children in the play.

"His joy for singing is great [as is] the excitement at the realization of Christmas," Brantley said about her son. "Certainly, Santa is still there, but he's starting to realize as he sings the songs what they are about."

The popularity of the book and the musical has been an eye-opener for Fite, who first conceived of it as a way to pass the time.

"We were just having fun. I had no idea it would turn into anything other than just goofing around in the car," she said.

Fite's children, now ages 15, 13, 12 and 10, will all be in the production, and Fite said she hopes to continue to perform the musical in years to come.

"They're my faithful little singers," she said. "I feel like it's a song that belongs to the whole family."