I had already consumed five different types of bread before the real dinner came out. Turkey legs the size of baseball bats were paraded onto the floor, trailed by chandeliers of bone-in pork chops, an ice sleigh spilling over with jumbo shrimp and a 50-person charcuterie board you’d only find at networking events. Most of us wide-eyed first years who expected nothing more than a few tin foil buffet trays stood stunned, holding up our phones to prove to our parents that the application fee was worth it, all while gold and silver chocolate stars were tossed atop our heads. Is this what heaven feels like?

A Yale tradition since the ’50s, the holiday dinner gathers the first-year class in Commons to celebrate the holidays before finals period. Luring students with an impressive array of hors d’oeuvres, the dining hall staff then march around the room, proudly displaying their beautiful culinary creations in a procession known as the “Parade of Comestibles.” 

One one hand, it’s a good sign that the University invests generously into student life. Live music. Stilt walkers. An infinite supply of pasta. Moreover, the annual tradition served as a gluttonous and indulgent break for a community built upon academic and mental discipline, as well as one that has for the past two years been restricted from large social gathering policies due to COVID-19.

Yet despite the abundance of food and festivities, I didn’t feel celebratory or relaxed. Rather, I felt guilty. As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc worldwide, and more than one-fourth of New Haven residents suffer from food insecurity, I found myself asking: should I really be here, mask underneath my chin while sipping sparkling apple cider between bites of dry-aged ham?

One of the root sources of student distress surrounding this event was the lack of COVID-19 precautions. Yale is more than ever vulnerable to infections. Since students returned from Thanksgiving break, cases on campus have risen sharply, triggering a change in alert level from green to yellow on Dec. 1st. While these increases have been driven largely by the transmission of the Delta variant, a new and possibly more transmissible variant, Omicron, was detected in Connecticut on Dec. 4th. Worse, for those who have not received booster shots, COVID-19 vaccine protection has begun to wane as the six month window of immunity passes. 

Instead of enforcing mask mandates in the face of a worsening health crisis, the University decided to let up its once tight management. Attendees never received clear online or in-person instructions on masking rules, so most kept their masks off for the entirety of the event. And while food was served in individual containers to help prevent the spread of germs, it only resulted in long, crowded lines of unmasked students.

Another point of concern was the amount of food. The floats –– replete with poultry, seafood, desserts and vegetables –– were impressive, but bordered on excess. Since small plates were already fixed for students, bowls were picked at and left half-eaten at tables for the dining staff to clean. I couldn’t help but think about both the environmental and community impacts of this food waste: the leftovers could’ve gone to a New Haven community member in need. 

Events like holiday dinner should happen. It’s an annual Yale tradition that leaves upperclassmen with long lasting memories and builds community among classes. However, to mitigate spread of the virus, the University should’ve more clearly communicated and enforced masking rules. And to cut the excessive food waste while preserving the dinner’s signature opulence, the University should outline plans to collaborate with local food pantries.

Finally, for students, we have to recognize the privilege of experiencing such an event, and appreciate the people and resources that made it possible.

MICHAELA WANG  is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at michaela.wang@yale.edu

Michaela Wang is a member of the Class of 2025 in Berkeley College. She majors in Anthropology and is involved in the Education Studies Program. She loves writing about places, Asian America, immigration, and food. You can read her work in the Yale Daily News, the Yale Herald, and her secret diary which she keeps very, very hidden in her room.