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Is A Partridge In A Pear Tree Affordable?06:42
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Two turtle doves on St. George Island, Fla. (AP)
Two turtle doves on St. George Island, Fla. (AP)

The so-called Christmas Price Index — a bit of holiday schtick from PNC Wealth Management — is up more than 1 percent over last year, to $21,465.56. The price is what it would actually cost to buy a partridge in a pear tree and all the other gifts in "The 12 Days of Christmas."

I decided to do a little shopping around of my own.

My problem was simple: 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.

So first, I called MacFarlane Pheasants in Janesville, Wis., where they sell game birds.

"OK, you want to know what a partridge in a pear tree would cost?" said Char Debroux, who is in charge of mature birds at MacFarlane. "The price on a Hungarian partridge is $13.25 each. But we actually sell two different types of partridge here."

Well. What about the other kind?

"The other kind is the chukar red-leg partridge. It's a cross-breed. They are $11 each and that price is good through November," she said.

PNC's Christmas Price Index lists a generic "partridge" that costs 10 bucks a pop. 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.

"Well, it really depends on the size," said Shannon Passmore, a customer service manager at Willis Nursery in Berlin, Ga. "They start at $9.95 for a 3-to-4-foot tree."

I inquired: Would that be sufficient to support a partridge?

"Um... probably not," indicated Passmore. "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 is $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.

For 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.

"Back in the day, I think five golden rings actually referred to golden ring pheasant," said Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. He says fully eight of the gifts in "The 12 Days of Christmas" fall under his jurisdiction. Or that of his sister agency, the Department of Fish and Game.

With regard to the six geese, Soares continued: "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 be paying anywhere from $240 to $600 for those laying geese."

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.

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

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, beginning with his choice of partridge.

"I believe the chukar," said Dunigan.

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.

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.

Speaking to the possibility of a discount index, Dunigan said, "Well, maybe we'll have to think about a Christmas Price Index skinnied up a little bit. 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, John Ramsay, who's performed with the likes of Art Blakey and Wynton Marsalis, told me that not too many of his ilk work for scale.

However, it's 12 drummers drumming. We need more drummers. At MIT, I discovered the Senegalese Drum Ensemble, "Rambax." Actually, there were 14 of them.

And yes, they played for me for free.

This program aired on December 24, 2009.

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