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 were making their debut along with the 11 other gifts in the inaugural PNC Christmas Price Index (CPI).

The popular holiday carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” dates back to the late 1700s. While the early verses deviate very little from the version of the song known today, one factor has changed dramatically: the price tag for True Love’s annual holiday shopping binge. Those same leaping lords from 1984 cost $14,539.20 in 2023.

For 40 years, PNC 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 tucked in 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.

“It’s fun to look back at the index over the years and see what has changed and how closely that has mirrored consumer behavior and the economy,” said Rebekah McCahan, PNC senior investment and portfolio strategist. “Clearly we’ve seen a shift from an index focused on goods to one more heavily tilted to the service and entertainment sectors over time.”

How it’s calculated

McCahan’s is a name synonymous with the index, as she’s been responsible for compiling the prices for 38 of its 40 years. She uses a variety of sources to calculate the numbers, including national bird suppliers, a hatchery and waterfowl farm, and a national pet store chain for the bird prices. 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. The Eight Maids-a-Milking are priced according to the federal minimum wage.

As with anything with such a long history, there have been several interesting data points throughout the years:

  • $4.14 — The price difference of the Seven Swans-a-Swimming between 1984 and today. Every single gift in the index has risen in price, but one of the most expensive is also the least changed from its debut. The swans debuted at $13,120.86 in 1984 and are priced at $13,125 in 2023.
  • 50% — The price drop those same swans experienced in 1995. Due to a successful domestic Trumpeter Swan breeding program, the prices of swans tumbled by 50% that year and fell even further to a paltry $3,936 in 2002 before steadily climbing to today’s price of $13,125.
  • $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 the four gifts has grown by at least $2,400 from their debut in 1984.
  • $2,903 — The debut price for the Ten Lords-a-Leaping in 1984. They have leaped in price by a staggering $11,635 since then.
  • 8 — The number of times the Four Calling Birds have changed prices in the history of the index. Ever a model of consistency from the inception of the index, the birds pricing remained the same for 17 years before their first modest increase. They last experienced an increase in 2013.
  • $15 — The debut price of the Three French Hens. The trio stayed at that price for almost 20 years.
  • 233% — The percentage price increase those same hens jumped in 2010 — it’s the largest one-year percentage increase for a single gift in the history of the index. They jumped from $45 in 2009 to $150 the following year.
  • 2003 — The year the CPI overall experienced its biggest jump in total price. The CPI grew by 18.4% that year on the backs of significant price increases to the calling birds, swans, pipers and drummers.
  • 4 — The number of times the index has experienced a drop in total price year to year. One of the most dramatic was in 1995, when the index dipped by 26.4% on significant drops in the housing market, gold, and the aforementioned 50% drop in the price of the swans. That year was eclipsed by only…
  • 2020 — The year that saw the single biggest percentage drop in the index (58.5%) as well as the lowest overall price of the index (only $16,168.14.) That version of the CPI did not include any of the four entertainment-related gifts, due to pandemic restrictions on in-person performances.

More than just numbers

The numbers are the heart of the index but are not the only way in which it has changed in 40 years. The presentation has grown as well. When it launched, the whimsical tabulation was meant only for a newsletter for a small subsection of the bank’s customers. Now, it’s a mainstay of PNC’s fourth quarter media lineup, earning annual placements in national, local and industry-specific publications.

Additionally, the CPI has branched out to include various in-person media events, marketing campaigns and even children’s activities in support of PNC’s early childhood education initiative, PNC Grow Up Great. McCahan has even received global interest in the index, including a live radio interview in Australia and a media opportunity in Canada that resulted in a translation of the CPI into Canadian Dollars.

“I’m happy it has had the staying power that it has proven to show 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.”

Visit the PNC Christmas Price Index at its home online for more information on the index, individual gifts, and the 40-year tradition.