Actor Tom Hanks, actor-comedian Lily Tomlin, singer-songwriter Sting, soul singer Al Green and ballerina Patricia McBride are the main attraction at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 7, with the event broadcast on CBS on Dec. 30.

And though this is the 37th year of the gala, which anually recognizes the lifetime achievement of an illustrious quintet of performing artists, it hasn’t lost its ability to thrill, especially among those whose work it celebrates.

For many, the Honors evokes a strong sense of tradition and community, attributes fostered by the event’s longtime producer, George Stevens Jr., who secrets the list of guest performers so that the honorees themselves are surprised by those who have been chosen to help fete them.

With President Obama and other dignitaries looking on, the center bestows its unique brand of knighthood in a gala that also serves as the KenCen’s annual fundraiser, supporting its performing arts, education and outreach programs.

Reinforcing the bond between the Honors and the entertainment community is the center’s artist’s committee, a diverse panel of some 80 accomplished talents and arts org managers who offer suggestions of potential honorees. “This event brings the arts world together,” says one veteran artist’s committee member. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

One of the weekend’s highlights is the intimate dinner held the night before the gala at the U.S. State Dept.’s posh diplomatic greeting rooms.

It’s an astonishingly eclectic gathering where rockers and rappers can mingle amid the nation’s prized heirlooms with the likes of ballet choreographers, past honorees and perhaps a Supreme Court justice. The favored five are presented with their distinctive ribbons following the dinner.

The significance of the award isn’t lost on McBride. The legendary principal dancer with the New York City Ballet says she’s “ecstatic” about receiving the kudo. “It means so much to my friends and family, and all those who supported me throughout my career,” she said, simply.