Is a partridge in a pear tree affordable?

A partridge in a pear tree

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Now that you're armed with everything you need to know about saying no on behalf of Santa, let's talk about a few gifts we can guarantee the kids won't be asking for. The so-called Christmas Price Index is up 1 percent over last year, at $21,465.56. That's what it would actually cost to buy a partridge in a pear tree and all the other gifts in the 12 days of Christmas. It's a bit of holiday schtick from PNC Wealth Management. And we in the media love it.

Bloomberg news anchor: As for right now the price for the 12 days of Christmas has increased despite a decline in swimming swan prices.

So PNC gets its name out there. Everybody's happy. Everybody except Marketplace's own personal Scrooge, Sean Cole, who decided to do a little shopping around of his own.


Sean Cole: Here's my problem: How do you put one universal price tag on, say, five golden rings? Surely it would depend on where you bought them, and what karat we're talking about. And that's just the most obvious example.

"Twelve Days of Christmas," sung by Ray Conniff: "On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree."

All right, calling MacFarlane Pheasants in Janesville, Wis. They sell game birds. Char Debroux is the person in charge of mature bird sales.

Char Debroux: Hello, this is Char.

And a really good sport.

Debroux: OK, you wanna know what a partridge in a pear tree would cost.

Two things here: PNC's Christmas Price Index just says "partridge," generically partridge and that they cost 10 bucks a pop this year. Where as at MacFarlane Pheasants...

Debroux: The price on Hungarian partridge is $13.25 each. But we actually sell two different types of partridge here.

Cole: Oh. What's the other kind?

Debroux: The other kind is the chukar red-leg partridge. It's a cross-breed.

Cole: And do they cost the same?

Debroux: No, chukar red-legs is $11 each and that price is good through November.

See what I mean? And never mind that you can't even buy a single partridge from MacFarlane unless you pick it up yourself. Pear trees get even more complicated.

Shannon Passmore: Well, it really depends on the size.

And the variety. This is Shannon Passmore, by the way, a customer service manager at Willis Nursery in Berlin, Ga.

Passmore: They start at $9.95 for a 3-to-4-foot tree.

Cole: Would that be sufficient to support a partridge?

Passmore: Um... probably not. But if we stepped up to, say, the 6-to-7-foot size, that would be large enough to support a partridge and it's $54.95.

PNC's estimate? $149.99. And they call themselves wealth managers. With the turtledoves we were a lot closer. I have them at 25 bucks a piece. The Christmas Price Index says $56 for the pair. French hens or mottled houdan hens, again, depends where you go. I found them for $3.50 a piece on one Web site, but you have to buy 15 of them. PNC's index says three hens will run you $45.

Four calling birds, interpreted by some as canaries, the Christmas Price Index and I are in sync to the penny on this one: $599.96.

And now, the rings.

Scott Soares: Back in the day, I think five golden rings actually referred to golden ring pheasant.

Cole: What?!

Soares: That's our understanding of it, that's correct.

This is Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. He says fully eight of the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" fall under his jurisdiction. Or that of his sister agency, the Department of Fish and Game. The six geese...

Soares: If you look at what it takes to get a laying goose, then you actually need to have the pair. So to get six pairs you'd being anywhere from $240 to $600 for those laying geese.

And you would need permits for the seven swans and that costs money. The Christmas Price Index takes none of this into account. Plus PNC assumes that the eight maids a milking would each earn minimum wage. Which is in no way true.

Soares: We're looking at about $18 per hour for one milk person to currently milk one cow.

I had to call PNC and present them with my findings. Jim Dunigan is the point person for the Christmas Price Index. And I really thought I'd be able to trip him up.

Cole: I mean, even just to start at the beginning with the partridge in the pear tree. Were you talking about a Hungarian partridge or a chukar red-leg partridge?

Jim Dunigan: I believe the chukar.

Cole: Oh yeah?

Dunigan: If I'm not mistaken.

Turns out he's a lot more up to speed on all of this than I thought. He knew about the five golden ringed pheasants.

Dunigan: That's correct.

All of it. And the reason that they list one universal price for each of the gifts, he says, is that they poll the same set of vendors each year: The National Aviary, a Philadelphia dance company called Philadenco.... So it's really an apples to apples comparison. But he did concede my point -- that the cost of some of these gifts depends on how you shop. Especially when I suggested hiring nine lady students dancing instead of professionals.

Dunigan: Well, maybe we'll have to think about a Christmas Price Index skinnied up a little bit.

Cole: A discount index.

Dunigan: Yeah, say, there's two ways to do this. More than one way to deliver true love.

And just to finish out the song, Dunigan says the 10 leaping lords in the index are just guys who play lords in "The Nutcracker." The prices for pipers and drummers come from the musicians union. Though a fairly prominent drummer told me that not too many of his ilk work for scale

Cole: Could I ask you to play something? That'd be great.

His name's John Ramsay and he's performed with the likes of Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis

John Ramsay: You ready?

Cole: Yeah.

[Ramsay drumming]

In Boston... I'm sorry uh, John is just one drummer. (Sings) It's 12 drummers drumming. You know, we need more drummers.

[Rambax ensemble drumming.]

There we go. This is the Senegalese Drum Ensemble "Rambax" at MIT. Actually, there were 14 of them.

And yes, they played for me for free.

In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

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