The snow is late in arriving this season, but a large Portland audience was nonetheless invited to take a “Sleigh Ride” on Friday night as the Portland Symphony Orchestra, with lots of clip-clops and whinnies, offered what has become its signature Christmas song as part of its “Magic of Christmas” program.

For this 36th annual holiday celebration, music director Robert Moody has loosely divided the performance into three sections representing the tradition, story and spirit of the Christmas season. Along with the expected, but still very impressive, assembly of instrumentalists and singers filling the festively lighted stage, he’s also brought along some amazing acrobats to spice things up a bit.

The program’s traditional section got underway with a dramatically arranged and richly voiced medley from a piece called “Christmas Fantastique.” The orchestra quickly established its capabilities for subtly varying “Joy to the World” and other familiar melodies to keep them fresh. Later, in the story section of the program, the ensemble, then led by assistant conductor Norman Huynh, transformed “Little Drummer Boy” into a transfixing bolero.

Sagiv Ben Binyamin and Gana Oyunchimeg, members of the Cirque de la Symphonie, took over the extended front of the stage to perform an acrobatic ballet to the pas de deux from “The Nutcracker.” Oyunchimeg, a native of Mongolia, was an instant star as she exhibited incredible strength and flexibility while lifting and being lifted by her partner. The ebbs and flows of the famous Tchaikovsky score enhanced the experience of the great feats and unusual grace of these two performers.

A third member of the Cirque, Marco Balestracci, also revealed dazzling skill in twirling and balancing a large, cube-shaped metal frame. He would later join the others in the spirit segment of the program for a “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” that had the crowd gasping as the two men bent and twisted Oyunchimeg in ways that seemed physically impossible.

Tap dancer Liz Pettengill also made a couple of cameo appearances, dressed as Santa, when the music tilted toward pop/jazz rhythms. And organist Ray Cornils helped to make “O Come All Ye Faithful,” particularly, resonate.

Among the purely musical offerings, the “Hallelujah” from Handel’s “Messiah” was a highlight. With the large chorus in full voice and the orchestra ably establishing the Baroque details of the work, the power of this selection was beautifully realized.

The audience needed little encouragement to get into the spirit of the program during a sing-along segment built around a large handful of carols. Despite the diverting entertainments offered elsewhere in the program, it was during these more thoughtfully engaging moments that the program seemed to really hit home.

Moody evoked the memory of Longfellow by way of introducing the poet’s words to “I Heard the Bells,” reminding all that a season of peace is very much needed during these uncertain times.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.