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The Obamas urge Americans to help the less fortunate in Christmas video message

President Obama spent a quiet Christmas here in his native Hawaii thanking military service members and their families for their “incredible sacrifices” to their country.

After opening presents and singing Christmas carols with his family at their lush and secluded vacation compound, Obama paid a visit to about 580 active duty troops and their families at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in what has become an annual tradition for this president. He said he also called 10 troops who are deployed in such far-away locales as Afghanistan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“It was just a sampling of the incredible sacrifices that all of you and your families make every single day,” Obama said, with his wife at his side. “Michelle and I know that we would not enjoy the freedoms we do if it weren’t for the incredible dedication and professionalism and work that you do. The least we can do is just let you all know we’re grateful to you.”

The president, dressed in island-casual, wrapped up his brief remarks by wishing the troops a “Mele Kalikimaka,” the Hawaiian greeting for “Merry Christmas.”

Earlier in the day, the White House released a Christmas video message in which the Obamas urged Americans to help out at soup kitchens, buy gifts for children in need or organize food or clothing drives for their neighbors in need.

“This is a season for millions of Americans to be together with family, to continue long-held holiday traditions and to show our gratitude to those we love,” the president said in the video. “And along the way, some of us might even watch a little basketball or eat some Christmas cookies, too.”

The Obamas singled out military families for special attention this Christmas. Noting that many veterans already have returned home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Michelle Obama said, “Now it’s our turn to serve - it’s our turn to step up and show our gratitude for the military families who have given us so much.”

In the Republican address, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho said America’s most prized gifts include freedom and worship. Risch also thanked the military for defending American freedoms.

The Obamas have been enjoying a low-key vacation in Hawaii, with the president spending three of the past five days golfing with his buddies. He has enjoyed some family time, too, including a beach outing and taking in a college basketball game.

On Christmas Eve, the president made holiday telephone calls to U.S. service members from each branch of the military who are stationed around the globe, including personnel who were wounded last weekend in an operation in South Sudan.

South Sudan was also on the first lady’s mind as she took calls from young children checking in on Santa’s progress using the NORAD Tracks Santa program.

As Michelle Obama answered calls, NORAD’s tracker showed Santa passing through some of the world’s hot spots - including South Sudan, where an increasingly violent political and ethnic conflict has drawn more of her husband’s attention this week.

She made no mention of the conflict as she told a girl named Ella: “I see his sleigh with eight tiny reindeer, and he is over Sudan — South Sudan.”

Ella asked when Santa would come to Kansas City.

“Santa is going to come to your house, Ella, when you are fast asleep — that’s how he works,” Michelle Obama said. “I think he is in Sudan now because there are some kids over there who are already tucked in bed with their eyes closed. So he is going to come to your house as soon as you’re asleep.”

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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