For the past few years, Emil de Cou has begun listening to Christmas music in mid-summer. It is his professional duty.

As the conductor of and emcee for the CSO’s annual “Merry, Merry Chicago!” holiday concerts at Symphony Center, he is tasked with helping to craft a program that’s both familiar and unique. It’s a tough tightrope to walk.

“The challenge is to avoid the things that people always do,” says de Cou, who serves as music director and principal conductor of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. “You can easily get into a trap of doing the same thing over and over again. And there are certain things you do want to do every year, like ‘Sleigh Ride.’ You can’t have Christmas without ‘Sleigh Ride.’”

Additionally, the repertoire must be suitable for a world-class orchestra. “It goes without saying that the CSO is one of the orchestral treasures of the world,” de Cou says, “and so you don’t want arrangements that are too simplistic or not challenging or that don’t show the orchestra off, because they’re the stars of the show.”

Hence the varied and meticulously paced 2017 program, which runs Dec. 15-23. It’s peppered with uncommon selections such as the Tchaikovsky-like “Dance of the Tumblers” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden, a reflective piece called The Snow by Edward Elgar and wife Caroline (who wrote the lyrics), the overture to Rossini’s comic opera La Cenerentola (based on the Cinderella fairy tale), and Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop by Danish composer and Johann Strauss II contemporary Hans Christian Lumbye.

Besides “Sleigh Ride,” with its cracking whip and whinnying horse, the repertoire is rife with other well-known numbers: “Carol of the Bells,” a medley of Christmas standards and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” among others.

There are several vocal selections as well. The Chicago Children’s Choir, which de Cou calls “one of the absolute best groups of children musicians I’ve ever worked with,” will perform several pieces with the orchestra, including The Snow and Alan Silvestri’s joyous “Spirit of the Season” from the hit film “The Polar Express” (2004). Soprano soloist and Broadway star Ashley Brown, who’ll dazzle with the rapid-fire “Jingle, Jingle Bells,” is part of the celebration, too.

And it is a celebration, de Cou says — of the Christmas season and of orchestral music in general. For some attendees, he adds, it might be the only time all year they’ve set foot in Symphony Center. For others, it’s an entirely new experience. Making a good impression, therefore, is paramount.

“In programming this, I always think of kids and families, because this might be the one event of the year where kids and even adults will hear an orchestra play live,” de Cou says. “So it has to be fun, and it has to be upbeat and Christmas-y. But I take it very seriously. It’s very important, because you might be [reaching] some little kid hearing this orchestra for the first time, and they might have a lifelong love of music after hearing this concert.”

Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.

TOP: Emil de Cou conducts “Merry, Merry Chicago!,” the CSO’s annual holiday revue. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016