Knives out: Strategies for surviving family gatherings this holiday season

Episode 6 of Season 2 of FX's "The Bear" depicts a chaotic, heated holiday dinner. Courtesy of Chuck Hodes/FX

Credit: Chuck Hodes/FX

Credit: Chuck Hodes/FX

Episode 6 of Season 2 of FX's "The Bear" depicts a chaotic, heated holiday dinner. Courtesy of Chuck Hodes/FX

A frazzled matriarch guzzles wine while preparing an elaborate holiday meal. Timers buzz as a tower of dirty pots and pans overflows in the kitchen. Boisterous guests hurl insults — and, occasionally, cutlery — at one another at the dining table.

Yes, these are fictitious scenes from “Fishes,” the Christmas-themed episode of the FX series “The Bear.” But fans of the show admit they accurately depict the dysfunction and chaos of some real-life holiday gatherings.

“I couldn’t believe how much it was like my family’s Christmas Eve, seven fish dishes and all,” said Grant Park resident Michelle Panneton, director of global partnerships at the CDC Foundation.

The Feast of Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration depicted in “The Bear,” and Panneton’s mother started preparing it as a St. Louis newlywed nearly 40 years ago.

“She didn’t have the money to go home to her Italian family in New England, so she and my dad started the tradition with some friends and neighbors,” recalled Panneton, who said more than 30 people attend the annual celebration.

“We are loud Italians, so cooking overly large meals is definitely our love language,” she said jokingly.

From the epic kitchen mess to the mother’s dramatic meltdown while refusing to accept help with meal preparation, Panneton said the culinary details and interpersonal dynamics depicted in the show are familiar.

“My husband always claims he’s going to be cleaning sauce off the ceiling, although I’m fairly certain that never happened,” she said with a laugh. “My mom is constantly getting distracted, and we all wonder if dinner is getting cooked at all, and my brother and I always tiptoe around something that’s bound to make my mom cry or throw a temper tantrum.”

Whether you’re the peacemaking youngest child, like “The Bear” protagonist Carmy, or the forgotten middle one, like his sister Natalie, “going back to old places, like your childhood home, and being around family brings you back to things that happened as a child and can make it really easy to slip into those familiar family roles,” Atlanta psychotherapist Deana Panza said.

Panza said many of her clients can relate to the conversation the three Berzatto siblings have before entering the family home and “the feeling that they can’t just show up and be themselves and enjoy the celebration.”

Concierge Psychology owner and CEO Rebecca Johnson Osei of Atlanta agreed.

“Of course, ‘The Bear’ is over-the-top dramatic, and I certainly hope most people don’t have to deal with that level of dysfunction,” she said, “but the truth is that the holidays are uncomfortable for a lot of people.

“Even if your family isn’t dysfunctional,” Osei said, “as we grow into adults, leave the nest and become our own people, we often find that the family dynamics we grew up with don’t serve us anymore, whether that’s teasing, sarcasm, eating habits, spiritual beliefs or alcohol consumption.

“For many,” she said, “the holidays are a bittersweet mix of seeing people they love dearly but with whom they may feel a growing distance.”

She and Panza both recommend setting boundaries around holiday gatherings. That could mean doing a grounding meditation exercise to prepare for the gathering, bringing food that meets your dietary needs, or even skipping an event altogether if a problematic or drunken family friend (like Bob Odenkirk’s Uncle Lee on “The Bear”) will be attending.

Atlanta-area CPA Amy King, for example, insists on heading home after holiday gatherings, even though her and her husband’s Alabama families live only an hour away.

“This may mean we get home very late, and then turn around and go back the next day, but our own bed and our own coffee are requirements for us to be fully engaged with our families,” King said.

She also limits her social calendar and gets meal kits delivered in December, to minimize stress during the busy season.

One of Panneton’s strategies when visiting family in St. Louis is to go for a long run on the day of festivities, which allows her to get some alone time and approach complicated family dynamics calmly, with a clear mind.

In addition to setting boundaries and taking charge of your schedule, Osei recommends focusing on the season’s positives.

“The holidays can be a joyous time, and it is important not to let anyone take that away from you — and that includes yourself,” she said. “Set your intentions and find your joy, even if it is driving around alone in the car blasting Christmas music and looking at holiday lights to get away from your family.”

Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.