Christmas carols and holiday music go hand-in-hand with December. And nobody knows this better than the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, which is bringing back its Holiday Pops show Dec. 13-15.

It’s a no-brainer for the Pops. Their holiday music repertoire is vast, having released three separate holiday albums, including last year’s Home for the Holidays. They’ve been performing holiday shows since the 1990s and last year, all three Holiday Pops performances completely sold out. Despite the fact that Christmas carols start playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the Pops is still able to offer something fresh to Cincinnati audiences.

According to Sam Strater, director of artistic administration for the Cincinnati Pops, it’s all about balancing tradition with new elements.

“Holiday time is the time when everyone wants their traditional fare, but they don’t want it to get stale,” he says.

To make sure the show changes, they invite a different guest artist to perform with them each year. Last year’s sold-out shows featured Amy Grant, while this year Ann Hampton Callaway will be joining the Pops.

“This year we have engaged Ann Hampton Callaway, who’s a great jazz singer [and] Broadway singer,” says Strater. “[She’s] really keen to really work with people and come up with a program that makes it look like more than the orchestra backing up the artist.

Strater likens the show’s design to a donut. “The donut hole is the artist and so everything kind of revolves around whatever the artist is going to do.”

Callaway, who is known to many people for writing and singing the theme song for The Nanny, brings her own holiday program to mix in with the songs the Pops have chosen. This mixing of styles easily makes the show different from any previous ones. “Ann does a couple of really cool things, she does a nice little improv, she actually puts together a song on the spot,” says Strater. “She call out and talks to the audience about things that are happening in Cincinnati and then she ties it all up into a once-in-a-lifetime performance of a song that she makes up on the spot.”

While Callaway brings her own distinctive flair, the Pops bring in their own elements as well. Audience members can expect a chorus, a dance group, a sing-a-long and an appearance from Santa Claus.

Christopher Pinelo, vice president of communication for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra, describes the holiday show as being similar to a variety show with its performers and characters. “What’s going to be consistent is a beautifully lit and decorated stage with a fantastic orchestra. It’s going to fun, it’s going to be festive, but the program is going to be different every year so you’re not seeing the same thing,” he says.

Strater adds, “We try to elicit the same mood every year, but have different material. You walk away feeling just as filled with holiday spirit at the end of the show as you would at any other year, but hopefully you’re not going to be hearing the same package of songs.”