Experts: 2023 Holiday Season

Published: 18 December 2023

The McGill Media Relations Office suggests the following sources for your holiday stories:

Addictions and substance abuse | Cooking safely | Exercise and staying active | Giving back | Holiday shopping | Mental health | New Year's goals and resolutions | Religion and spirituality | Staying safe and healthy | The science of holiday music | Traveling over the holidays | Tree shopping

Addictions and substance abuse 

Rachel Rabin, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry 

"While the holiday season is a joyous occasion to some, December and January can bring stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue to others. Being mindful, acknowledging substance use triggers, staying connected to support networks, and reaching out for help are strategies that may help people cope with problematic substance use during these difficult times.” 

Rachel Rabin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a researcher at the Douglas Research Centre. Her research program focuses on developing a better understanding of the clinical, cognitive, and neural correlates of problematic substance use and addictive disorders.  

rachel.rabin [at] (English) 

Cooking safely 

Joe Schwarcz, Professor, Department of Chemistry 

“There are concerns about cooking with gas indoors, especially if there are children with asthma in the house. The issue is oxides of nitrogen that are released.” 

Joe Schwarcz is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Director of the Office for Science and Society. His areas of expertise include food chemistry and the connection between the body and mind. 

joe.schwarcz [at] (English) 

Exercise and staying active 

Steven Grover, Full Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Internal Medicine 

“For many Canadians, the holiday season will be associated with physical and mental health challenges, particularly as we recover from the pandemic. Given the proven benefits of regular exercise to improve the management of chronic pain, stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, there is no better lifestyle strategy to help Canadians optimize their health and happiness during the next few months.” 

Steven Grover is a Full Professor in the Department of Medicine and the Director of the Comprehensive Health Improvement Program. His research focuses on the importance of exercise, healthy eating, and other lifestyle interventions to improve health, as well as on digital, e-health interventions using web-based platforms. 

steven.grover [at] (English, French) 

Giving back 

Eric Latimer, Full Professor, Department of Psychiatry 

“The number of people experiencing homelessness has been rising throughout the province of Québec. Increasing rents and likely high inflation are an important cause of that. Housing First, in which rent subsidies are combined with psychosocial supports, is a key part of the solution. Every day we use taxpayer dollars to fund our health and social services system, often for benefits that are not as impactful as helping people regain housing and dignity.” 

Eric Latimer is a Full Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a researcher at the Douglas Research Centre. As a health economist, his research interests focus on community-based supports for people with severe mental illness, particularly their economic aspects. 

eric.latimer [at] (English, French) 

Jayne Malenfant, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrated Studies in Education 

“Around the holidays, many people reflect on how they can best support the most precarious members of our communities, including volunteering at shelters, food banks, and community organizations. While it is important to address the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness, gender-based violence, or other forms of precarity, there is a growing critique of charity-based models to solve social problems, including an increasing push to be working on issues ‘"upstream’" of homelessness–for example working with young people in schools before they end up in shelters or on the street. How can we contribute to the urgent work of community organizations, shelters, and resources now and throughout the year, while thinking of acting together to ensure people don't ever have to navigate homelessness in the first place?” 

Jayne Malenfant is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education. Their research focuses on impact measurement in the non-profit sphere, the institutional experiences of young people and adults navigating homelessness, and the experiences of Two-Spirit, trans, and non-binary communities navigating housing precarity. 

jayne.malenfant [at] (English, French) 

Holiday shopping 

Moshe Lander, Course Lecturer, Department of Economics 

“Inflation has eaten into the purchasing power of many Canadians as wages have failed to keep pace. As Canadians struggle to pay the higher costs of food, rent, and energy prices, savings must come from discretionary spending and holiday time is the most natural place to scale back. While Canadians might be angry and point fingers at the central bank and the federal government for causing this, the reality is that Canadians should be pointing at themselves for living too long on record-low interest rates, accumulating record-high levels of debt and an unwillingness to listen to public figures warning Canadians that their behaviour was dangerously unstable and would inevitably end badly.” 

moshe.lander [at] (English) 

Moshe Lander is a Course Lecturer in the Department of Economics. His areas of expertise include business, politics, policy, trade, inflation and unemployment. 

Vivek Astvansh, Associate Professor, Desautels Faculty of Management 

“The inflation rate and unemployment rate are under control, motivating shoppers to spend. Further, retailers are neither too low on inventory (like in the pandemic peak) nor overflowing with it (like last year), thus hopefully better prepared to earn sales. These two factors suggest a promising holiday shopping season for shoppers and retailers. However, I remind shoppers to watch out for three concerns. First, Black Friday does not necessarily mean deals. Second, be wary of buy now, pay later loans. Third, focus on the total price, which includes taxes, shipping, and perhaps insurance.” 

Vivek Astvansh is an Associate Professor of quantitative marketing and analytics in the Desautels Faculty of Management. His research guides shoppers and retailers on how they can draw benefits and mitigate costs arising from their adoption of technology. 

vivek.astvansh [at] (English) 

Mental health 

Nate Fuks, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology 

“Holidays can be a time of heightened emotions and expectations, often amplifying feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and stress for many individuals, challenging their mental health." 

Nate Fuks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Director of The Virginia I. Douglas Centre for Clinical Psychology. His recent research revolves around intersecting identities and the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrants, and refugees. 

nate.fuks [at] (English) 

New Year's goals and resolutions 

Richard Koestner, Full Professor, Department of Psychology 

“The last year has been challenging because many people are struggling with rising prices and higher interest rates. It is natural to be anxious about the economy and the fact that many services have been affected by labor strikes. Given this uncertainty (and the residual fatigue of emerging from the pandemic), some of us will struggle to use the holiday period to make goals for the new year. Although difficult in the present context, it is important for us to make new goals because this is how we give direction, meaning and hope to our lives. I recommend two kinds of goals this year – ones that provide order and structure to our daily routines (e.g., re-establishing boundaries between work and leisure) and ones that focus on making sure we satisfy our fundamental human needs. What we really need right now are social goals that enhance our connections to other individuals, groups, and communities.” 

Richard Koestner is a Full Professor in the Department of Psychology. He has conducted research on human motivation for over 30 years and has published over 200 scientific articles. His recent work focuses on how to effectively set and pursue personal goals.  

richard.koestner [at] (English) 

Religion and spirituality 

Robert Whitley, Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry 

“The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as ‘"religiosity’") is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Likewise, research indicates that religiosity can enhance recovery from mental illness, aiding in the healing process. For example, one classic research study shows that recovery from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is better in countries with higher levels of religiosity. Private prayer, devotional readings and attendance at a place of worship have all been linked to better mental health, as they impart a sense of meaning, purpose and community. As such, religiously oriented individuals should consider connecting or reconnecting with their faith during the festive season.” 

Robert Whitley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Principal Investigator of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group (SPRING) at the Douglas Research Centre. He conducts research on various areas of social psychiatry including religion/spirituality and mental health, psychosocial recovery from mental illness and men’s mental health. 

robert.whitley [at] (English, French) 

Staying safe and healthy 

Brian Ward, Full Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases 

“The holidays can be wonderful ‘social’ times, with large numbers of contacts between people within homes, communities and while traveling. This large increase in contacts can greatly facilitate the transmission of infectious diseases, particularly those transmitted through the air and through food and drinks. No one wants to be sick during the holiday season or even worse— make someone else sick. Among the many things one can do to decrease these risks are to make sure vaccinations are up to date for illnesses like COVID-19 and influenza, and to take personal precautions such as social distancing, handwashing, and masking as appropriate— particularly if you feel sick.” 

Brian Ward is a Full Professor in the Department of Medicine and a Senior Scientist at the Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC). His research focuses on infectious diseases, tropical medicine and vaccines. 

brian.ward [at] (English, French, Spanish) 

Matthew Oughton, Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases 

“SARS-COVID-2 continues to be a formidable presence worldwide, even as our society tries to adapt to (and, in some cases, ignore) its individual and collective effects. Diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of both the acute and chronic effects of COVID-19 will continue to be important goals of research, and its interaction with hosts and their environments will produce long-lasting effects on the health of individuals, their communities and their countries.” 

Matthew Oughton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases and medical microbiology. He is based at the Jewish General Hospital, where he supervises the bacteriology and molecular microbiology laboratories. 

matthew.oughton [at] (English) 

The science of holiday music  

Daniel Levitin, Full Professor, Department of Psychology 

“Research has shown that most people in Western countries use music to self-soothe. They know that there are certain kinds of music that will put them in a good mood. Christmas music is a reliable one for a lot of people.” 

Daniel Levitin is a James McGill Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Music and Director of the Laboratory of Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise. He is an award-winning neuroscientist, as well as a world leader in research on music, the brain, and music’s role in mood, memory, aging, medicine and overall health. Levitin is a musician, record producer and composer who has worked with Sting, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, and many others. 

daniel.levitin [at] (English) 

Traveling over the holidays 

John Gradek, Faculty Lecturer, School of Continuing Studies 

“Commercial air travel in Canada during the Christmas 2023 period should be less chaotic than in the last 2 years. Not only have air carriers and airports adjusted their operating practices to fit within their resource capabilities, they have also increased their capacity through aircraft acquisitions and consolidations. Flair, Lynx, and Porter Airlines have all added additional aircraft to their fleet and are attempting to fill this new capacity with low off-season fares. You can expect full, yet delayed, flights. Patience and alternative travel plans have always been the key to an enjoyable air experience, and this holiday season is no exception.” 

John Gradek is a Faculty Lecturer in the School of Continuing Studies, where he coordinates the Supply Networks and Integrated Aviation Management programs. He has held senior roles at Air Canada in operations, marketing and planning and has worked in the development and the delivery of commercial airline management programs for the International Aviation Management Training Institute. He was most recently an adjudicator with the Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada. 

john.gradek [at] (English, French) 

Tree shopping 

Pierre Dutilleul, Full Professor, Department of Plant Science 

“On a wintry walk in the woods, have you ever wondered why branches of Christmas trees and other conifers grow the way they do? Some of these trees are chubby and short, and others are tall and skinny. By using a CT scanner like those used in hospitals and a new statistical model, my team of researchers was able to explain why younger tree branches grew in a certain way based on the growth patterns of older branches. In all seasons of the year, our eyes cannot see the stem and directly connected branches of a Christmas tree – a CT scanner gives us access to this hidden world. CT scanning data and images also allow digital measurements that would be practically impossible to make otherwise. For example, the distance between offspring branches on the same parent branch, or the angle made by an offspring branch relative to its parent. Interestingly, we found that branches at the fourth level followed a growth pattern determined in good part by the branching patterns of the second level branches, and not, as we expected, the third.” 

Pierre Dutilleul is a Full Professor in the Department of Plant Science. He is a statistician who studies trees and his latest research examines how branching patterns affect light-gathering efficiency in plants can improve our understanding of photosynthesis, and by extension, food production and the environment. 

pierre.dutilleul [at] (English, French) 

David Wees, Faculty Lecturer, Department of Plant Science 

“Real Christmas trees look nicer, smell nicer and can be ‘greener’ than artificial trees (which are often made from fossil fuels). However, if the thought of killing a tree for a few weeks of indoor decoration makes you squeamish, consider using just branches of spruce or fir instead of a whole tree. Alternatively, you could take a more radical approach and decorate a potted green plant like a jade plant or a Norfolk pine: they last much longer than cut trees and are just as green.” 

David Wees is Faculty Lecturer in the Department of Plant Science and the Associate Director of the Farm Management and Technology Program. He teaches courses in all aspects of horticulture: vegetable production, fruit production, greenhouses, urban horticulture, and landscaping. 

david.wees [at] (English, French) 

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