North Idaho

A season's greeting transformed into art

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - They come in a flurry in our mailbox each year; cards and letters, sent with love. But, within a few days, those holiday cards are stuffed in a drawer somewhere, forgotten.

Unless you're lucky enough to get a special red envelope from the Haight family on Harbor Island. 

"He starts thinking about the Christmas card long before I do," Samm Haight explained of her husband's preparation for the holiday card.

"The Christmas cards allow me to, one month out of the year, just get real silly and weepy and sentimental and all that," said Rann. 

Haight Family Christmas

The other 11 months of the year, Rann Haight is all business. The architect designs homes and buildings, everything from the Coeur d'Alene Chamber of Commerce building to Arco Arena in Sacramento. But, 23 years ago, he found a new calling.

"Everybody was doing Christmas letters," Rann explained. "It was kind of when that got popular - late 80's. And, I said - I just can't see writing a letter. That's just not us."

So, the Haights started their own holiday tradition. This architect and his team -- wife Samm and three daughters -- began sketching over dinner on Coeur d'Alene's Sherman Avenue.

"We happened to fall in love with Tito's Restaurant when we first got here," Samm said. "That's where we would sit, the kids could draw on the paper tablecloths. Our first Christmas card happened there. Rann's got the cup of crayons and he starts drawing as we say what's going on."

Those crayon sketches became beautiful cards, each with a story to tell.

"You're cramming an entire year with five people's lives on a 4x9 piece of cardboard," said Rann. "I think they're the smallest murals ever done."

Small murals with big messages, a year in the life of this family. births, proposals, sad endings and new beginnings. Many start as posed pictures of the Haight family that end up on the card with a holiday twist. 

"There's all kinds of inside jokes," Samm says. "There's hidden clues.")

Samm's favorite was 1995, the year the Haights moved their lives from California to Coeur d'Alene. They took a leap of faith and left home and family behind.

"It's a picture of us walking and the storyline we decided to put with it was, 'To face unafraid the plans that we made walking in a winter wonderland.' That was emotional," Samm said with tears in her eyes. "Still is."

Rann's favorite: 1993. It depicts his three girls, still young enough to live at home, spotting Santa when they should be in bed.

"It was more a study on how could I capture the girls' faces when they were as cute as they were ever gonna be," Rann said with a sentimental laugh. "I've always liked the card for its simplicity."

In the Haights' home office, those memories come to life. When it's time to turn Rann's drawing into a card for the masses, the Haights only use printers close to home.

"We make sure we use everybody here in Cda. We don't send anything off-shore, we don't pick it up the internet," Rann explained. "It's all people we know."

Who else would you trust with something that starts on a paper tablecloth, depicting memories in a way no photo album ever could?

"Number 3 suitor came up to my office while I was drawing the card and asked for my daughter's hand," Rann said, showing off the card from 1998. "Then he had to fly to Italy to propose. So I'm sitting on this."

He couldn't reveal the secret, but it had to go in the card for that year. So he turned a Jack of Diamonds in Santa's deck of cards into a diamond ring. The 2010 card shows the wedding that followed.

Their family stories told in ink, for better or for worse.

"We've been complimented on how well-behaved our children are," Rann said with a smile. "But I think it's because they know, anything they do can end up on the Christmas card."

And, they end up around the world for friends and family to see. Some of them wait all year for that special number 10 red envelope. The Haights sent about 50 cards the first year; this year, they postmarked 625. They're numbered and stamped with Rann's name, ready to frame. Each card is a Rann Haight original with a holiday twist.

"I heard I've been nominated for the refrigerator magnet hall of fame," he said.

Each year is special, but this year's card more than others. It's a look back at Rann's favorite card from 19 years ago. This year, their grandchildren replace the spying girls, spotting Santa when they should be in bed. 

While the rest of us end up with disposal cards for the trash, the Haights have their memories framed and hung. And, though he has no plans to end this beloved holiday tradition, Rann already knows what the last card will look like.

"I've got the last card figured out.I may just do it, stick it in the drawer and - say, just print this one," said Rann.

"That'll be the 'Don't open 'til Christmas' one," Samm predicted.