Santa Claus was there, too, but three children who attended a holiday reception at the White House on Monday preferred to climb up on a chair with President Bush and the first lady.

The children were among the 150 fourth graders — most of them sons and daughters of troops fighting overseas — who had an audience with the Bushes, Santa and dancers from the American Ballet Theatre who performed parts of The Nutcracker in the East Room.

Bush welcomed the children by telling them that Americans are very proud of the parents for serving in the military.

"I know it's hard when they're away," he told the students, who sat cross-legged on the East Room floor. "This has got to be a difficult time for you. But we really want you to know that they're doing important work. They're not only protecting the country, but they're helping other boys and girls live in freedom like we do here in the United States."

The president and first lady then sat on a love seat near the back of the room while performers playing the roles of little Clara, the Prince and dancers from around the world put on a 25-minute show. Three children climbed up to sit with them, but they did not seem distracted by the first couple after the music began and all eyes were on the dancers.

The president shook hands with the cast afterward, spending several minutes chatting with ballerina Julie Kent, who played the Sugar Plum Fairy, while Mrs. Bush invited the children to visit Santa and take home some Christmas cookies.