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December 25, 2002

A Christmas List for a Song This Year


Deflation hit even true love this year at least the type spelled out in "The 12 Days of Christmas."

Each year, as holiday spending reaches its seasonal frenzy, a Pennsylvania financial services firm offers its own quirky take on the economy, and this year, it calculates, the gifts spun out in the song from a perching partridge to drummers drumming would run to $14,558.06.

An expensive Christmas, true, and it counts on old-fashioned legwork to buy everything from the partridge's pear-tree perch to booking the milking maids and leaping lords. But the price, according to the PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, which has been putting together the index for nearly two decades, is down 7.6 percent from last year.

And for what it's worth: Only twice before, in 1988 and 1995, did the index fall.

It would probably be fruitless to look for savings on the Internet, though. If you turn to the Web, the price zooms up to $24,595.28 3.6 percent higher than a year ago though some items are cheaper.

Still, just look at the bargains to be found in our wobbly economy. Swans, for instance. Seven "a-swimming" are required and they have dropped to $300 each from $500 last year. Breeders, it seems, have an oversupply of trumpeter swans, said Rebekah McCahan, who has been compiling the light-hearted information for PNC since 1986.

And there is a surfeit of pear trees this year, with one Philadelphia-area nursery selling them at 30 percent less than last year, for $87.50 versus $125.

"Over all, we've seen the price of goods drop, which reflects what is happening in retail, where there are big discounts to encourage consumer spending and increase sales," Ms. McCahan said.

Gold prices rose, though, with five simple gold bands now going for $382.50, up 2 percent from $375 last year. Buying the rings online, though, would cut the price more than half.

Pipers and drummers, from the local musicians' union, were relatively cheap 11 pipers for $1,641.60 no increase over 2001, she said. But the leaping lords (from a Philadelphia dance troupe, Philadanco) and dancing ladies (hired from the Pennsylvania Ballet) were more expensive. Ten lords-a-leaping cost $3,921, up 4 percent, and the nine female dancers rose 2.2 percent, to $4,107, up considerably from their $1,602 price tag in 1986, Ms. McCahan said.

Eight maids-a-milking cost the same as last year $41.60 for an hour of minimum-wage toil, or $296.32 if hired via the Internet although Ms. McCahan acknowledged that such a service is hard to find these days because most milking is automated.

You might want to get them while you can. Over all, the price of the gifts is likely to rise again.

"As we see hiring plans improving and wages on the rise, we expect to see a rise in our Christmas Price Index next year," said Jeff Kleintop, the chief strategist at PNC's investment advisory group.

But never fear: the lords will leap again, the ladies will dance.

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