8 Life Hacks for the Holidays Overseas

Nov 10, 2020 | 4 comments

“Mom, we took down our tree already!” my daughter exclaimed after our Christmas shipment arrived a month later than expected.

It was nearing the end of January and although we were well past the holidays, there were presents to open from family back home. 

I took out a large piece of paper, drew a tree, grabbed some crayons, turned on the Christmas music, and we began decorating our paper Christmas tree. We hung it on the wall and placed the presents near the paper tree. 

With the AC cooling the room and my parents on a video call, we pretended it was Christmas morning.

Holidays overseas involve unexpected celebrations, interesting timelines, parties with new friends, different traditions, extra stress and beautiful calm. 

Depending on where you are in the world, the weather could be hot rather than cold. There might be palm trees on the beach instead of snowy pine trees lit up with twinkly lights.

The feeling of the holidays overseas might be very different from the feeling of holidays in your home country. 

Because of these differences, the holidays can bring sadness and homesickness, missing snow, candy canes, candlelight services and cozy Christmas mornings. 

These differences can also make you glad that you aren’t facing big family meals, a busy Christmas party schedule, hurried gift buying, an overabundance of high calorie treats, in-law pressures and the many school events that happen during the holidays back home.

With this in mind, what are some tips and tricks to finding new holiday feelings and traditions overseas? 

How can you make the holidays special without all the things you remember from holidays past?

1) Start early

We all know that things take a lot of time overseas. This includes holiday preparations and planning. For your family, it might be collecting presents as you find them throughout the year and storing them for December. When you see Christmas paper plates in July? Buy them. When the little store that sometimes carries American brands has a set of Christmas cookie cutters, add it to your overseas baking collection. For me, holidays planning happens all year long. If we travel to another country, I look for little things to make Thanksgiving or New Years special for our family.

On a team, starting early could be planning your team holiday events in January so those who have to plan long travels have plenty of advanced notice for what the year’s events will be. You might decide to host a Valentine’s party or Easter Egg hunt and could let the team know your plans. Starting early also helps if you need something mailed over from the states or grandma wants to send a package. These things take time and planning ahead. Starting early can be a great way to enhance your holidays overseas.

2) Get creative

As with our paper Christmas tree on the wall, holidays overseas take a little bit of creativity. One year, I wanted Christmas pajamas for our family but there were none to be found anywhere. Instead, we went to the market, found a Christmas-like West African waxprint fabric and had our own pajamas made for Christmas morning. Hand-woven baskets are a big part of the culture where we live and I was able to find a round, red and green circle basket to use on our table. What around you could work for what you have in mind? What are some creative ways you could use local crafts or supplies for your holiday celebration?

3) Bring things from home

This is a part of moving overseas that no one else can decide for you. As you are packing for the first time or after a quick visit back home, what can you bring with you for the year ahead? Is there a baking mix, a birthday card, a family decoration or treasured memento that’s important to you? For me, I brought our small nativity with us. It was a present from Jeremy for our first Christmas together. It’s just a small Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus but having it overseas was important to me.

These are questions to ask yourself and your family as you pack. What is important to us? What can help us celebrate the various holidays overseas in our new home and country? Take some time to sit down, think through the year and write down what might be important for each special day.

4) Enjoy new traditions

From new foods for Christmas dinner, to visiting exciting places for Thanksgiving or experiencing something in the local culture for Easter, holidays overseas are a great time to incorporate new things into your family holiday traditions. Also, not all countries celebrate the same things at the same time. You might celebrate a different New Year or go to school on Thanksgiving. Where we live, Christmas time is also watermelon season. Massive piles of large watermelons sit on every street corner. We now have a 4th of July style cookout at some point over the holiday break. Find ways to incorporate these traditions into your celebrations. Allow your family to embrace the memories and adventures of new people, places and things. Cultivate memories from around the globe.

5) Enjoy old traditions

There is nothing wrong with using your air conditioner to make the living room cold enough to need socks and blankets while watching White Christmas and drinking hot chocolate! There is something very special about remembering grandparents through making a special recipe or bringing out an old movie from your childhood. Literally, one of the first things I purchased when we got to West Africa was a very large Christmas tree from a family who was moving away. If friends or family want to send a holiday package, asking for things that help you recreate old traditions can be a blessing for your family. Don’t feel bad about keeping traditions alive and remembering holidays from past years.

6) Keep things simple

I’ve always appreciated simpler holidays. I look for ways to keep our focus on the meaning of the day and to remember why we celebrate, so that the stress doesn’t overwhelm the holiday itself. This is actually a lot easier overseas because so much of the hype, the commercialism, the busyness and the pressure of egg hunts, family events, gift exchanges, and signing 34 perfect Valentine’s isn’t a part of our schedule overseas. We honestly don’t even celebrate all the holidays on the calendar because they aren’t a part of our new culture. Keeping things simple is a blessing. Find out what’s important and savor those things. Let go of the pressure to keep up with things on Facebook or recreate every detail from home. Take a deep breathe and let go of the pressure to have everything perfect or remember every detail for every holiday. Keep things simple, reduce stress and choose to do what’s best for your family. 

7) Oh, technology!

We love technology, and it can be such a wonderful part of being an overseas worker in this century. Yet, we need boundaries, grace and an extra dose of patience when it comes to technology, overseas life and the holidays. Technology means seeing all the perfect fall pumpkin walk photos and the fireworks displays and the beautiful falling snow via Instagram or Facebook. It means long video calls with family for a birthday party or a reunion or a Christmas gathering. There is such a thing as too much technology during holidays overseas. Set boundaries. Give expectations for family calls ahead of time.

One way we do this is to have my sister call when they are opening our gifts to them, instead of having us on video for ALL the gift opening. We set a time for family communion rather than just a quick call during Easter dinner. We state ahead of time that we want to talk a little bit Christmas morning and then maybe again later in the day. Make meaningful, real connections during the holidays. Also, be watchful of your kids as they see their cousin’s or their friend’s new bike or new device or new lego set. It can be really difficult for kids to see all the things they can’t have or won’t get because of living overseas. Let technology add good things to your holidays, not take away from them or cause extra stress or sadness. 

8) Let your family grow

Holidays are a great time to embrace the greater family of God in your organization and in your local community. Let a worker aunt or uncle plan a birthday party for your daughter. Invite a group of single workers over for Christmas breakfast. Celebrate a local holiday with a family in your community. Go on a trip with your team for New Year’s Eve. The holidays are the perfect time to open your home, embrace new friends, and let your family grow.

The holidays overseas can truly be a mixed bag of emotions, extra work and a lot of stress. They can be times of sadness and remembering. They can be times of joy and new adventures.

Planning ahead, keeping purposeful traditions, knowing what’s best for your family and allowing your family to grow are just a few ways to enjoy peaceful, beautiful and beneficial holidays while living overseas.

What are some ways you incorporate these things into your overseas life during the holidays?

What is one way you make the holidays special for your family or team?

Have you ever been unsure how to release grudges with teammates? Or how to deal with your grief over too many goodbyes? Or what to do with disappointment with God? Or how to help people with these types of questions? This month’s workshop is for you. Get it here.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay 

Jenilee Goodwin

Wife, boarding school mom, runner, writer, lover of books and a huge coffee fan




  1. Kathryn

    Appreciated your practical tips. Though the article didn’t resonate with me as loudly as it may have, as many of the examples were northern hemisphere ‘cold Christmas’ examples, whereas I come from the Christmas = summer = hot Southern Hemisphere !

    • Jenilee Goodwin

      Thanks Kathryn! Hopefully, the tips can still apply wherever you are… it definitely is different from one climate to another!

    • Kim

      These tips were exactly what I needed this morning as I sat having my coffee here in Orlando Florida. Why? Because I won’t be home for Christmas. I’ll be spending my first Christmas in 65 years away from what I know. Away from what Christmas normally means to me. Instead I’ll be sharing my first Christmas with my son and his family in Dakar Senegal! And your article made me think of what I could bring with me to make this a memorable holiday. I’ve been so fortunate to make friends in Senegal over the past 8 years my son has lived and taught there. Many of my friends are expats. And they are missing home and family in this Pandemic year especially. So Grandma is coming! And offering a “Crafting and Cookies Christmas with Grandma” get together for the children of my favorite Dakar moms. That I can be a “Grandma” for all for a couple of hours. Yes, I’ll miss my grandchildren in the States this year. But my heart will grow a little bigger sharing Grandma love with those who can’t be with their Grandma this Christmas. ❤️🎄❤️🙏

      • Jenilee

        How wonderful, Kim! Thank you for sharing your Grandma love with overseas kids this year… what a huge blessing. And, thank you for sharing your idea with Global Trellis. It inspires all of us to get creative this holiday season.


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