COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink many traditions. Holiday gatherings are being curtailed; work is increasingly being done remotely; “going to class” now means logging into Zoom. Some of these traditions may eventually go back to the way they were.
The first year dinner should not.
For those current first years who have never experienced this, I should give a primer: Right before finals season, first years recieve an email for a special dinner. To mark the occasion, students are asked to “dress to the nines.” On the night itself, everyone descends into Yale on York, a large basement space serving as a temporary replacement for Commons. There are stations with a dizzying array of food: huge bowls of paella, giant platters of sushi, an enormous fillet of beef.
Suddenly, the sound of drums fills the room. Drummers, emerging from an unnoticed door, are quickly followed by dining hall workers carrying the so-called “parade of comestibles”: a cornucopia of fruit; “endless slices of beef Wellington”; a sleigh constructed entirely from ice, filled with shrimp; a 10-foot long loaf of challah bread.
Later, students divide the challah into dozens of head-sized chunks and chat while absentmindedly fiddling with severed crab claws. The night winds down. The floor is littered with scraps of bread. The less appetizing pieces of sushi remain on the platters. The ice sleigh melts: drip, drip, drip.
If this sounds surreal to you, it’s because it felt surreal to all of us. “Small talk” at the first year dinner tends to revolve around how extravagant it is. Only Yale, students say, could possibly keep up a tradition “stemming from English royalty.”
But Yale shouldn’t.
Ultimately, the cost of the first year dinner is a drop in the bucket for a school with Yale’s budget and endowment. In 2006, the cost of the parade of comestibles alone was about $1,000. Christelle Ramos, Yale Dining senior manager of marketing and communications, did not provide an updated cost. But indexed to inflation, the current cost could be assumed to be around $1,300. Ramos did note that Yale collaborates with a variety of organizations to provide donations after the event. Still, the cost sends the wrong message.
Many students enjoy the first year dinner to some degree. The food is very good. The procession is, in some sense, entertaining. A collective meal for the entire class is a great way to end the semester. But for others, like Jessica McCurdy ’22, it feels like “the capitol from the hunger games.” McCurdy is from an area of Florida she describes as a food desert; in New Haven, too, there are people who can’t find something to eat while Yale students are eating shrimp out of an ice sleigh.
The first year dinner sends a message to Yale students: When you have money to spend, it’s okay to be extravagant for the sake of being extravagant. It’s not.
It’s important to think about the message because many Yale students will, in fact, have money to spend. The median income for the United States is about $36,000; for the world, it is around $2,900. The median starting salary for Yale graduates is $67,000, far surpassing both figures.
Extensive research has been done on global health interventions that can make large impacts for relatively low costs. For instance, the cost of the “parade of comestibles” is enough to provide treatments for parasitic worms to more than 1,330 children, which has been shown to improve their lives years later. This is the kind of cause that Yale should spend excess money on. And it’s what Yale students should do, too, if and when they have enough money to order yearly ice sleighs.
Overall, the first year dinner is a wonderful idea: All the first years gathered together to celebrate the end of their first semester. It makes sense to have some kind of unusual food or dessert, at the cost of a regular meal (who doesn’t have fond memories of citrus week?). But the parade of comestibles, the ice sculptures and the lobsters? It’s time for them to go. The first year dinner may be less memorable in terms of glitz, but it will be more memorable for the right reasons.
What should Yale do with the money it saves from cutting back a little? It should embrace the spirit of the holidays, and commit to giving it away to those who need it most.
As part of this, Yale should set up a vote, where first years will propose and decide which nonprofit organizations should receive the money. Having a vote will spur a new tradition, where students are encouraged to think about how they can best help others with their money. It will create a debate on campus about charitable giving and how to decide which of the thousands of charities should receive Yale’s support.
When Yale students make enough money to donate in the future, they will remember these lessons in generosity. They will have experienced thinking critically about donations. They might give more than they otherwise would have, and that could make all the difference.
Yale, don’t choose extravagance. Choose generosity.
THOMAS WOODSIDE is a sophomore in Grace Hopper college. He is a member of the Yale Daily News’ Data Desk. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.