How much for the 12 Days of Christmas?

A partridge in a pear tree

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: And finally this holiday weekend, safe to say you'd have to be rich or at least very well-off to afford the items in something called the CPI: the Christmas Price Index. Every year, the firm PNC Wealth Management calculates the actual cost to buy a partridge in a pear tree, two turtledoves and the like. It's a bit of holiday schtick.

So last year reporter Sean Cole went deeper into the story. We loved his story so much, we decided to regift it to you this year.


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.

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 redleg partridge. It's a cross-breed.

Cole: And do they cost the same?

Debroux: No, chukar redlegs 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 turtledoves we were a lot closer. I have them at $25 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 website. 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 if you have six pairs. Then you'd actually be looking at $240 to $600 for those laying geese.

And you would need permits for the seven swans 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 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 redleg 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 it depends on where 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 ten 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 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.

In Boston, I'm...I'm sorry, John is just one drummer. We need "12 drummers drumming." We need more drummers.

Senagalese 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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