Cantus is more than eight voices singing in harmony. In living up to its reputation as "the premier men's vocal ensemble in the United States," Cantus is eight voices working in collaboration on all aspects of music-making.

Red Wing will enjoy the benefits of that collaborative effort when the Minneapolis-based ensemble performs its "Lessons and Carols for Our Time" at 7 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Sheldon Theatre.

This year's holiday program - Cantus creates five concerts annually, including a new Christmas program for the season - is based on the "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols," which dates back to the 1880s.

Chris Foss, who has been singing bass with Cantus since 2008, explained that Edward White Benson, who later became the archbishop of Canterbury, organized the service in hopes of keeping men out of pubs on Christmas Eve.

Variations on the Lessons and Carols theme became a tradition all over the world.

"As an innovative vehicle for meditation and thought, Cantus' Lessons and Carols is a perfect way to reflect on today's most important relevant lessons, both intimate and universal," according to the ensemble.

Traditionally, Foss said, the music is paired with nine Bible readings. "Our take," he added, is to "distill the lessons into their core essence," including themes of wintertime, sacrifice, rebirth and more.

Instead of readings, Cantus collaborated with poet Patricia Kirkpatrick to select poetry that speaks to the same themes. "We were very happy we were able to find poets of color and female poets" to include in the contemporary element of the program.

Members of Cantus will present the poems in addition to singing. Foss is the current member with the longest tenure; other vocalists are tenors Jacob Christopher, Zachary Colby, Alberto de la Paz and Paul Scholtz; bass Samuel Green, and baritones David Geist and Sam Kreidenweis. De la Paz and Kredenweis joined this year.

The unique way they work together is one of the things that distinguish the group, Executive Director Joe Heitz said in an interview when he came to the group.

"The ensemble functions without an artistic director," he explained. "This might sound like a small detail, but in practice, it means the eight singers must cooperate throughout the entire creative process, from programming through rehearsals and, ultimately, onstage at a performance."

From Foss' perspective, that means "the best idea in the room wins the day. It could come from any of the members. It helps us make better music." And, he added, involving everyone in the process leads to "a lot more buy-in" by the singers.

Cantus tours an average of 13 weeks a year. Members also participate in educational outreach activities, largely with student and collegiate audiences.

"It's part of our mission to spread the joy ... and to inspire the next generation to keep it rolling," Foss said.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press called this year's holiday program "one of the most rewarding ... Cantus has ever created."

The content of the Christmas program makes it a most appropriate time for reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the new year, Foss said.

He thinks of it as "stepping off the merry-go-round of life and taking stock of the choices you made."

The ensemble, which performed at the Sheldon a couple of years ago, looks forward to the return visit on Dec. 16. "It's such a beautiful theater," Foss said, "and also a very intimate experience - we feel connected to the audience."

Tickets are $35-$40. Visit the box office, call the Sheldon at 651-388-8700 or go online to www.sheldontheatre.org.