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Diplomatic Children’s Parties

For over 25 years, the White House holiday season featured an annual party for the children of diplomats. During their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the parties were hosted by the first lady and typically attended by over 400 children under the age of twelve, representing over 80 countries. Between 1962 and 1985, National Geographic photographers captured images from several of these parties for the White House Historical Association. For the first time, the Digital Library has brought together these compelling images, as well as related documents and videos, to share the story of this lesser-known White House holiday tradition. View the full collection.

The tradition of special White House receptions for the children of diplomats began during the John F. Kennedy administration. As new African diplomats moved to Washington, D.C., they often encountered racial discrimination. State Department Chief of Protocol Angier Biddle Duke enlisted the help of a special assistant, Eleanor Israel, to organize a volunteer group to support diplomats’ families. Called The Hospitality and Information Service (THIS) for Diplomats, the organization was founded in 1961 and soon enjoyed sponsorship by all the wives of the president’s Cabinet. For her contribution, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy extended White House hospitality to the diplomats’ children.

In 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted two “Musical Programs for Youth by Youth” for embassy children. On February 7, she invited children between the ages of twelve and eighteen to a performance of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” by the Metropolitan Opera Studio, while children as young as ten were guests of honor at an East Room concert on November 19. The concert featured performances by 20-year-old Korean classical pianist Tong Il-Han and the Paul Winter Jazz Sextet. Lynda Bird and Luci Baines Johnson, daughters of President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, continued the tradition by hosting musical programs for diplomats’ children. Meanwhile, the winter event for young children grew tremendously and took root as an annual tradition.

Each December starting in 1964, hundreds of children arrived at the White House in the national attire of their homelands, where they were greeted by clowns and THIS volunteers. Corralled into the East Room, the children enjoyed a short entertainment program. Then, they entered the State Dining Room for cookies and punch, and perhaps visited the Blue Room Christmas Tree. By 1969, first ladies regularly joined the fun. A true collaboration between the White House and THIS, the parties evolved to reflect the taste of the first lady as well as provide a platform for outstanding children’s entertainers. Featured performers included household names such as Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, “Big Bird” and the cast of “Sesame Street,” Jim Henson and “Kermit the Frog,” stage actress Helen Hayes, and Emmanuel Lewis, the star the television sitcom “Webster.” Many of the children were undoubtedly most excited by the appearance of “Santa Claus,” often portrayed by presidential staff and later by NBC “Today” show weatherman Willard Scott.

After the 1970s and 1980s, media coverage of the parties declined dramatically. By the mid-1990s, the parties appear to have faded into an obscure tradition. Only through archival records can we imagine the lively parties that were once organized by first ladies and THIS volunteers for the children of diplomats.

This collection features hundreds of photographs taken by National Geographic photographers for the White House Historical Association publication The Living White House. First released in 1966 and updated with each administration, The Living White House is the story of the ongoing history of life as lived in the Executive Mansion. The images were preserved on 35mm film slides, and among the 20,000 images included in a large-scale digitization project initiated by the Digital Library with support from Amazon Web Services in 2017. The collection also includes a small sample of photographs, documents, and videos, created by White House employees and preserved by presidential libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration.