PNC Bank has its Christmas traditions, and I have mine.
For more than 30 years, we’ve calculated the prices of the twelve gifts from the classic carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The result is the PNC Christmas Price Index, a unique and whimsical holiday tradition that makes learning about the economy fun.
PNC’s annual tally is kind of charming — both because of and in spite of the fundamental weirdness of the “12 Days of Christmas” song it’s based on. This year’s index, if you’re wondering, puts the total cost of all the birds and what-not at $34,558.65. The cumulative cost of all the verses in the cumulative song works out to $157,558.
That’s a bit out of reach for most American families — unless you’re talking about the kind of “typical American family” that Republican members of Congress say will benefit from the hastily written donor-relief tax bill they just rammed through. (“A typical family of four with an annual income of $200,000 — $100,000 in wages and $100,000 in capital gains — will save almost $800 a month …”)
Plus, again, most of us aren’t really out there comparison shopping for French hens or pipers piping.
So in pursuit of a more relatable Christmas Price Index, I turned to another — and a far superior — Christmas song, Robert Earl Keen’s low-rent classic “Merry Christmas From the Family.” Here’s the video Keen did for that song years ago:
If you enjoyed that, here’s a recent live performance from earlier this month (with Keen now looking much more like the guy who wrote “The Road Goes On Forever“). And here are versions of “Merry Christmas From the Family” from the Mountain Goats and from Kacey Musgraves.
Keen’s song tells the tale of a raucous family gathering — just the kind of annual event that many of us dread, dislike, then remember fondly afterward. Throughout the evening, various needs arise with few of those gathered sober enough to be able to drive to the gas station convenience store — the only place open on Christmas — to go pick them up. Felicitously, the long list of items for which designated drivers are sent to the Stop & Go adds up to exactly 12 — neatly providing us with our alternative CPI, the Christmas Keendex.
That list of items consists of purchases that will be far more relatable for most of us: ice, an extension cord, a can of bean dip, some Diet Rite, a box of tampons, Marlboro Lights, celery, a can of fake snow, a bag of lemons, Diet Sprite, a box of tampons (again), and some Salem Lights. You may not be in the market for all of those things, but you’ve surely at least heard of them.
These also would make for an odd list of Christmas gifts intended to express “true love,” but I think the act of leaving the party and driving around to go get them all demonstrates true love better than purchasing a whole orchard of pear trees.
Compiling the Christmas Keendex doesn’t require a team of bank economists poring over market prices and labor data. It just involves driving around to local convenience stores until I’ve located all the items on Keen’s family Christmas shopping list.In keeping with the spirit of the song, I start with gas-station mini-marts, of which there are several around here of the sort that are still open Christmas day. I only include Wawa if I’m unable to find any of the items at those mini-marts, because most of America doesn’t enjoy the glorious privilege of having a beautiful 24-hour Wawa close at hand. If I’m still unable to track down all the items that way, I’ll head to the 24-hour supermarket nearby (usually for the lemons and celery), even though it’s actually not open on Christmas proper, and even though its prices aren’t jacked-up the way the prices for everything are a mini-mart.
If PNC can include “lords” a-leaping who aren’t actual lords, then I think that’s still within bounds.
PNC’s economists like to track the “volatility” of the prices in its annual list — with swans, apparently, being the item that fluctuates the most in price year-to-year. The big change in our Keendex this year involves the twice-invoked cost of the box of tampons, which dropped quite a bit. That’s due to gas-station mini-marts borrowing a trick from dollar stores by introducing tiny little boxes — meaning lower prices for far, far less product.
The price of celery is higher this year because I finally found some at a gas-station mini-mart — an elaborately packaged set of celery-and-carrot “dippers” that might include just barely enough to garnish everybody’s Bloody Marys provided, as is likely, that the enthusiastic craving for Bloody Marys that led to some poor sap being sent forth to find celery has faded a bit by the time they get back and so the celery they’ve been out looking for probably won’t be all needed after all. (This is the one thing more annoying than being asked to leave a party and drive around when all the stores are closed, on a quest for an urgently needed can of bean dip: Finding that same can of bean dip the following morning, unopened.)
Anyway, here’s this year’s Christmas Keendex, which turns out to be $34,502.22 cheaper than the one for “The 12 Days of Christmas”:
• bag of ice: $2.11
• extension cord: $6.99
• can of bean dip: $3.99
• Diet Rite (12 pack): $4
• box of tampons: $3.99
• Marlboro Lights: $7.65
• celery: $3.99
• can of fake snow: $2.09
• bag of lemons: $3.99
• Diet Sprite (12 pack): $5.99
• box of tampons: $3.99
• Salem Lights: $7.65
In another 20 years, the Keendex will probably be even less meaningful than it is today. Consumers won’t need to send somebody out to the mini-mart for last-minute Christmas-day purchases, they’ll just summon them via Amazon Instant drone delivery.
Of course, for the kind of family Keen is singing about, such high-tech conveniences will be as out of reach financially as a dozen partridges and pear trees. But families like that won’t be having Christmas Day parties anymore anyway — they’ll all be spending the holiday working double-shifts at the Amazon warehouse because holiday double-time pay of $14.50/hour will be the closest thing they’ll ever see to a living wage.