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The cost of the 12 days of Christmas increased dramatically this year

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Inflation is moderating, but prices are still higher in this season of gift-giving than they were last time. Of course, the price hikes depend on the product, as we can hear in PNC Bank's annual inflation scorecard based on the "12 Days Of Christmas" song. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the Christmas price index.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS")

PENTATONIX: (Singing) On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Partridge prices were flat this year, but the price of pear trees jumped sharply. Amanda Agati of PNC Bank calls that a classic case of supply and demand.

AMANDA AGATI: There's more demand for pear trees than there are partridges. But the supply of pear trees has been somewhat more limited this year. And so that's what's driving pricing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS")

RELIENT K: (Singing) On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

HORSLEY: Turtle doves and French hens also saw double-digit price increases this year. Agati blames the rising cost of bird feed, as well as the growing popularity of backyard farming.

AGATI: And don't let the birds hear me say this, but also a farm-to-table phenomenon that continues there. So I think consumer demand for many of these exotic pet categories is up quite a bit.

HORSLEY: If you add up the cost of gifts for all 12 days of Christmas in the song, the price has jumped by 10.5% from a year ago. That's the third biggest increase since the bank started tracking holiday inflation back in the 1980s. This year, the Christmas price index has jumped even more than the consumer price index, the official inflation yardstick compiled by the Labor Department. Whenever inflation is high, some people seek shelter in precious metals, such as...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS")

PENTATONIX: (Singing) Five golden rings.

HORSLEY: Ring prices are up a whopping 39% this year. Overall, though, it's not the rings or any of the stuff under the Christmas tree that's really pushing the price index higher. As with overall inflation, it's increasingly a story about costly services.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS")

BURL IVES: (Singing) Eleven pipers piping, 10 lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing...

HORSLEY: Dancing ladies, piping pipers and leaping lords all cost more this year. The lords' price tag, which is based on salaries at the Philadelphia Ballet, leapt more than 24%.

AGATI: There's no question services inflation is higher than goods inflation in the PNC Christmas price index. But that's what we're seeing in the broader economy.

HORSLEY: Inflation watchdogs at the Federal Reserve are also worried about the rising price of services, even as the prices of some goods, like used cars, are starting to come down. Service prices are largely driven by rising wages, and as a result, they tend to be hard to reverse. For a long time, the seven swans a-swimming with the most expensive item in the Christmas index. But they seem to have lost some of their luster. The price of swans has been treading water for the last three years.

AGATI: You know, I'm not sure I know what to do with seven swans. I wouldn't know how to take care of them.

HORSLEY: Interest rates are also climbing this year as the Fed tries to crack down on inflation. So if you do your holiday shopping with a credit card, you might pay even more. Even if you're not in the market for a partridge or a pear tree this year, Agati says there are lessons to be learned from the Christmas price index.

AGATI: Clearly, our specialty gift basket of goods and services here is not well insulated from some of the trends that the broader economy is experiencing. The true love's really going to have to shell it out this year.

HORSLEY: And whatever you and your true love might have on your gift list, don't let inflation take the joy out of the holiday season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS")

IVES: (Singing) And a partridge in a pear tree.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.