The good old days—when a gallon of gas was only $1.13 and a performance by 10 leaping lords could be purchased for just more than $2,900. The year was 1984 and those Lords-a-Leaping, along with the other 11 gifts from the popular holiday carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” were making their debut in the inaugural PNC Christmas Price Index (CPI).
Dating back to the late 1700s, the carol’s early verses deviate very little from the version of the song known today. Though one factor has changed dramatically—the price tag for True Love’s annual holiday shopping binge.
For 40 years, PNC Bank has been calculating what it would cost to buy all the gifts in the song as part of the CPI. The first CPI was created by a PNC predecessor bank as a whimsical holiday feature for a weekly business newsletter. Then, as now, the index was intended as a lighthearted comparison to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. Over the years, the index has risen and fallen with the economy and consumer sentiment. When it launched, the total cost to buy all 12 gifts was $20,023.57. In 2023, that cost has ballooned to $46,729.86.
How it’s calculated: Rebekah McCahan, a vice president with PNC’s investment strategy team, has been responsible for calculating the CPI for 38 of its 40 years. She uses a variety of sources, including national bird suppliers, a hatchery and waterfowl farm, and a national pet store chain. A nursery provides the pear tree price; a jeweler assists with the five gold rings; and a Philadelphia-based dance company provides the price of the ladies dancing.
As to be expected, there have been several interesting data points throughout the years:
- $4.14–The price difference of the Seven Swans-a-Swimming since 1984. Every gift in the index has risen in price, but one of the most expensive is also the least changed. The swans debuted at $13,120.86 in 1984 and are priced at $13,125 in 2023.
- $2,400–Dollar for dollar, the four entertainment industry gifts (Ladies, Lords, Pipers and Drummers) have seen the biggest price increases and are most responsible for the CPI’s growth over the years. Each of these gifts has grown by at least $2,400 from their debut in 1984.
- 8–The number of times the Four Calling Birds have changed prices in the history of the index. Ever a model of consistency, the birds pricing remained the same for 17 years before their first modest increase. They last experienced an increase in 2013.
- 233 percent–The percentage price increase of the Three French Hens in 2010—the largest one-year percentage increase for a single gift in the index’s history. They jumped from $45 in 2009 to $150 the following year.
- 2003–The year the CPI experienced its biggest jump in total price. The index grew by 18.4 percent that year due to significant price increases for the calling birds, swans, pipers and drummers.
- 2020–The year of the single biggest percentage drop in the index (58.5 percent), and the lowest overall price of the index (only $16,168.14). The 2020 CPI did not include any of the entertainment-related gifts, due to pandemic restrictions on in-person performances.
More than just numbers: “I never imagined the CPI would have had the staying power that it has proven over the years,” McCahan said. “I don’t know what the next 40 years will bring, but I do know this is something I have enjoyed being part of.