December 17, 2020
By Yi-Jin Yu
Photo editing by Tyler Essary
The holiday spirit has transformed the White House for years, most evident in the unveiling of the annual Christmas decorations. But one seasonal tradition is one of the least known — the Diplomatic Children's Party, once an annual December event that began in 1962 and brought Christmas cheer to the children and families of ambassadors, envoys, ministers and officers in Washington, D.C.
After acquiring a trove of 35 mm film slides, the White House Historical Association, led by digital asset librarian Caitlin Sanders, set out in 2017 to digitize them. Among the slides were hundreds of photos taken by National Geographic photographers at the Diplomatic Children's Party over the course of two decades. Now, the nonprofit is exhibiting these never-before-seen photos in the hopes that former White House staff members and party attendees will come forward to share their stories.
The birth of a holiday tradition
White House Historical Association historian Matthew Costello told TODAY, "Based on our research of the photographs, and the holdings within the presidential libraries, we believe that a lot of these (Diplomatic Children's Parties) were spearheaded and pushed by a group called The Hospitality and Information Service for Diplomats, or THIS.
"During the Johnson administration (1963-1969), it's when these became more of an annual party, inviting the children of diplomats to the White House, where there would be food, entertainment, music, and then these kids would get to see and experience the White House."
But according to Costello, the Johnsons didn't appear to attend the Diplomatic Children's Parties because they would spend Christmas in Texas. It wasn't until the 1970s when the first lady became the de facto host of the celebration.
"First lady Pat Nixon was really the first first lady to preside over the party, to be there to greet the children, shake hands, meet people and also to broaden the entertainment a little bit more. I think she brought some different ballet groups through, different musical groups.
"From Pat Nixon and Nancy Reagan, and probably even into Barbara Bush, you know that the first ladies took on a much more prominent role in organizing and hosting it and it sort of became an extension of their responsibilities."
"The best Christmas party in the world"
Over the years, special guests at the Diplomatic Children's Party included beloved characters like Alf, Big Bird, the Cabbage Patch Kids, Goofy and, of course, Santa Claus himself. TODAY's very own Willard Scott was St. Nick at the 1985 party and entertained kids on the same stage as actor and "Webster" star Emmanuel Lewis and vaudevillian clown Avner “the Eccentric” Eisenberg.
Scott, as Santa, dubbed the Diplomatic Children’s Party “the best Christmas party in the world.” At its height, Costello estimated there were over 400 children in attendance, with 80 countries represented. They would gather and meet other kids just like them, enjoy sweet treats, make balloon animals or meet their favorite characters.
Performers like the U.S. Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps and the Broadway Pixie Judy Troupe, a family musical theater company, would regale young partygoers in the White House's East Room. "It's the biggest room, you can fit the most people in it. I think, during the Johnson administration is when they built a set, a stage that they could actually bring out and assemble and put out there so if they wanted to do bigger performances, they could." explained Costello.
From tradition to historical time capsule
The restored photos detail the changing Christmas decorations, entertainment and trends that spanned over 25 years. Costello said the children's parties are “a really nice overarching example of how traditions are made, change, evolve and disappear at the White House.
“Had photographers not taken these pictures, there would have actually been very little visual documentary evidence that they existed. Because if you think about the Johnsons, they weren't at the White House, so chances are there was no White House photographer at this event in the 1960s. … So, this event would have happened and maybe there would have been images, maybe there wouldn't have been. But because there was, now we can tell this much richer story."
The annual December parties eventually ended in the late 1980s. Carol Bradford, a corresponding secretary for THIS for Diplomats, explained in an email to TODAY, "The last White House event THIS for Diplomats organized for diplomats’ children was in 1986, so we don’t have many details about why these events were discontinued. Our understanding is that the White House no longer supported them. With more than 350 children involved and numerous buses required, transportation costs may have been a consideration."
Over 30 years later, the parties live on in the vintage photos as the White House Historical Association continues to research and works to unearth untold stories. Costello said he hopes "at some point, people are going to see these pictures. And I'm hoping somebody reaches out to us and they say, 'Hey, I remember. I went to that party. My parents were diplomats from Romania (or wherever). And I remember going to that party in 1976 and let me tell you more about it.' So, we're hopeful that there's people out there that were kids at that time who experienced it, who might be able to contact us and give us more information about the event, what they saw, what they did.”