Obama read aloud from "The Polar Express," the award-winning Christmas book also made into a film, and joked with youngsters, asking: "Have you guys been good?"
Sounding a bit like an avuncular television host, the visibly relaxed president asked some two dozen children, age six to 11, at the Boys and Girls Club what they wanted for Christmas.
He looked surprised by their pricey high-tech wishes, from MP3 players to cell phones and video games.
"Whatever happened to, like, asking for a bike?" Obama asked.
"Everybody has a bike!" one child informed him, as others nodded.
But the president made sure the children understood that the holiday was more than just about presents.
When he asked the children why Christmas is celebrated, one of them piped up: "The birth of baby Jesus."
Obama agreed, adding that "what he symbolizes for people all around the world is the possibility of peace, and people treating each other with respect."