The Cost of Love: Appraising The Twelve Days of Christmas

How to get into the holiday spirit? Do some math!

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a Christmas carol that lists out items that a (supposed) lover is purchasing for his love.

The earliest version of the song appeared in a kid’s book titled, Mirth With-out Mischief in 1780. However, the version that we are most familiar with was established by Frederic Austin in 1909.

The gifts are as follows:

  • One partridge in a pear tree
  • Two Turtle doves
  • Three French hens
  • Four calling birds
  • Five gold rings
  • Six geese a-laying
  • Seven swans a-swimming
  • Eight maids a-milking
  • Nine ladies dancing
  • Ten lords a-leaping
  • Eleven pipers piping
  • Twelve drummers drumming

PNC Wealth Management puts together a Christmas Price Index, but I wanted to test some of their methodology. I always wanted to see what it would have costed when the song was first created (which is easier said than done).

I am going to alternate between £ and $ (due to some of the data sources) but the final analysis will compare the two time periods in $.

Key Assumptions:

  • I assumed the 1800s were pretty consistent price-wise across the years, so there isn’t a set year that I pulled all the below prices from. However, everything is adjusted to 1875 prices.
  • I estimated the labor costs to be for 24 hours
  • I used the History of British Birds (Volume I and Volume II) to get the prices for the birds, but William Yarrell didn’t list out all the birds, so I made some educated guesses
  • I used Measuring Worth for all my currency conversions and purchasing power estimates.
  • Also, a note on the money: “Colonists counted their money by the English system of pounds, shillings, and pence — twelve pence (pennies) per shilling, and twenty shillings per pound.
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Source: History of British Birds, Vol 1 and Vol 2

Another note: This was harder than I thought. There might be errors in my bird classifications or my pricing estimates. Sorry in advance, if so!

So behold: the true cost of the 12 Days of Christmas.

Day 1: Partridge (and Pear Tree?)

1875: In the History of Birds, Volume I and II, William Yarrell breaks down some bird prices, but didn’t list partridges.

I am going to have to make (one out of several) educated guesses. Below are the bird prices he did list (in shillings, which are 1/20 of a pound)

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Partridges were not respected and a “prey bird” so I’m estimating it was more of a “moderate sum” of 3 shillings, at most, so ~£0.15 or $0.84 for one partridge.

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Pear Tree: Pear tree data was surprisingly difficult to find. I actually couldn’t even find unit pear data. I’m going to guess that it was ~$0.03/pear, based on these estimates for fruit below.

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Source: NPS

Pear trees produce ~2–3 bushels (1 bushel is ~50lbs of pears per year, two pears are roughly 1lb, so ~25 pears per bushel) so I am going to estimate ~$1.5 worth of pear (50 pears in total), or £0.27

1875 Partridge and Pear Tree = $0.84 Partridge + $1.5 Pear Tree = $2.35

2020:You can buy a partridge from Purely Poultry or you can buy the game from D’Artagnan for $18. I’ll round it out to $25 because the below website feels slightly illegal.

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Pear Tree: You can get a pear tree for about $40 (you can even get one from Home Depot!)

2020 Partridge and a Pear Tree = $25 Partridge + $40 Pear Tree = $65

Day 2: Two turtle doves

1875: I am going to estimate that Turtle Dove’s went for ~5 shillings based on Yarrell’s bird prices above. For two turtle doves, that is 10 shillings in total (10 shillings is half a pound), so £0.5 or $2.8.

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1875 Two Turtle Doves = £0.25 x 2 = £0.5 = $2.8

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2020: Today, you can get the “Little Turtle Dove” for ~$75.

2020 Two Turtle Doves = $75 x 2 = $150

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Source: The Finch Farm

Day 3: Three French hens

1875: The French hen is going to be treated like a chicken in this analysis. The Faverolle is a bit different, but I am going to make the assumption that they traded somewhat similarly to the regular chicken.

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Source: Wikipedia

Chicken costs the same as other fowl, so around 7.5 shillings, roughly £0.375 or $2.10

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Source: FoodTimeline

Confirmation on table birds from Yarrell:

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Source: The History of British Birds

1875 Three French Hens= $2.1 x 3 = $6.30

2020: Chickens are about $60 for 3, or $20 for 1.

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Source: Eggnomics

2020 Three French Hens = $20 x 3 = $60

Day 4: Four calling birds/blackbirds

1875: Songbirds (Sky Lark) were selling for between 12–15 shillings. For simplification, I will say it’s roughly 13.5 shillings, £0.675, or $3.77.

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Source: The History of British Birds

1875 Four Calling Birds= $3.77 x 4 = $15.1

2020: I put a canary for comparison to a Songbird here, because I could not find a Sky Lark for sale. Canaries sing and they were in England during the writing of this song, so I think that meets most of the necessary bird requirements.

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2020 Four Calling Birds= $180 x 4 = $720

Day 5: Five gold rings

1875: Apparently, this was supposed to be the Goldfinch bird. But I am just going to stick with the gold ring. Franklin Jewelry company lists some solid gold rings for ~$1.5 each, or £0.27 (£1.4 for all 5).

1875 Five Golden Riiiiings = $1.5 x 4 = $7.5

2020: It looks like the average ring is ~$5,000 now, but it really depends on several different factors. I am just going to estimate $5,000.

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Source: Verma Estate Jewelry

2020 Five Golden Riiiiings = $5,000 x 5 = $25,000

Day 6: Six geese a-laying

1875: Via BBC:

“According to the 1844 A Christmas Carol/The Miser’s Warning (a theatre adaptation by CZ Barnett of the Dickens novel) the character Bob Cratchit would have spent a week’s wages to buy the ingredients for the basic Christmas feast…That would be seven shillings for the goose, five for the pudding, and three for the onions, sage and oranges.”

Seven shillings for one goose, £0.35, or $1.96. I am going to leave their a-laying eggs out of the equation, because I am assuming that goose + egg hatching are a package deal in this scenario.

1875 Six Geese= $1.96 x 6 = $11.8

2020: Using Purely Poultry again, there appears to be several goose choices, costing $25, on average.

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Source: Purely Poultry

2020 Six Geese= $25 x 6 = $150

Day 7: Seven swans a-swimming

I don’t know how the person in this carol got swans. According to the Smithsonian:

“Swans — who owns them, who breeds them and who eats them — is an issue for the British that has generated legal statutes, sparked courtroom battles and engaged town councils in bitter arguments since the Middle Ages.”

The article continues,

“Swans were luxury goods in Europe from at least the 12th century onward; the Medieval equivalent of flashing a Rolex or driving a Lamborghini.”

Swans were a luxury good. And he just gave away seven of them.

“During the the Medieval Ages, swans were priced at four to five shillings apiece, which was about 3–4x the price of a pheasant and nearly 10x more than a goose.”

I am going to use the previous goose price of 7 shillings as a benchmark.

Total swan cost is roughly 7 shillings x 10= 70 shillings per swan or £3.5, or $19.6

(Also, yes, the Queen is the Seigneur of the Swan)

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Source: Daily Express

1875 Seven Swan= $19.6 x 7 = $140

2020: Florida sold swans for $400 a piece back in October.

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Source: NBC News

2020 Seven Swan= $400 x 7 = $2,800

Day 8: Eight maids a-milking:

According to the 1870 Catalogue of Goods, one heifer cost $18.75. One cow cost $26. That’s a total of $26 x 8 = $208 worth of cows for the maids to milk.

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Source: NPS

For the maids, Chatsworth used to pay their housemaids £20 per year, which is £0.05 per day. Times 8 maids (assuming we pay them their salaried rate), that’s ~£0.4 in maid fees, ~$2.24 in total.

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Source: Chatsworth

1875 Eight Maids a-milking = $208 cow + $2.24 maid = $210

2020: It costs around $3,500 to buy a cow according to Animal Care. For 8 cows, that’s $28k.

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Source: Animal Care

The national average for a housekeeper is $40–80 per hour. Taking the average, that’s $60/hour x 24 hours = $1,440 per housekeeper x 8 = $11,520.

2020 Eight Maids a-milking = $28,000 cow + $11,520 maid = $39,520

Day 9: Nine ladies dancing

Dancers made “$10 per week…(and) also made a commission from the drinks that they sold” in 1885. That’s $1.4 per day (assuming they work 7 days per week).

1875 Nine Ladies Dancing= $1.4 x 9 = $12.6

2020: According to Chron, freelance ballet gigs are between $500 — $1,500 per performance. The estimates for this are a bit difficult, so I am just going to say that it’s $1,500 per performance.

2020 Nine Ladies Dancing= $1,500 x 9 = $13,500

Day 10: Ten lords a-leaping

Robert Hume wrote The Value of Money in Eighteenth-Century England which broke out income brackets across the centuries. It seems that “52 percent of families had income under £25 per annum; 83 percent had income under £50; 94 percent had income under £100.”

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Source: Penn Press

Let’s say that these were somewhat fancy lords, making £100 per annum (also adjusting for the age of the dataset). They make £0.27 per day.

1875 Ten Lords-a-Leaping = £0.27 x 10 = £2.7 or $15.10

2020: I am going to use data from the House of Lords here. Most of the members of the UK’s House of Lords do not receive a salary, but can claim payment for the days that they work, “those who aren’t salaried may claim a daily allowance of £300 for each “qualifying day of attendance” in Westminster.”

If we got these Lords to leap:

2020 Ten Lords-a-Leaping = £300 x 10 = £3,000 or $4,059

Day 11: Eleven pipers piping + Day 12: Twelve drummers drumming

1875: These two combine together quite well. It was very tough to be a musician in London during this time, according to Robert Hume’s work.

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They made 15 shillings per night, taking home “somewhere between £30 and £60 per year.” That’s ~£0.75 per night.

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Source: Robert Hume

1875 Eleven pipers piping = £0.75 x 11 = £8.25 or $46.10

1875 Twelve drummers drumming = £0.75 x 12 = £9 or $50.30

2020: According to PayScale, musicians make ~$50 — $1,000 per gig. Let’s say that they make ~$800.

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Source: PayScale

2020 Eleven pipers piping = $500 x 11 = $8,800

2020 Twelve drummers drumming = $500 x 12 = $9,600

Conclusion: Final Costs + Comparing to PNC

In 1875, everything would have costed ~$520. That’s equal to $12,50today.

At today’s estimates, the whole shindig would cost $104,424. Using this as a rough proxy for inflation would mean that prices have increased 8.35x since 1875!

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There are some people that say that these gifts actually compound — so by the end of the ordeal, you end up with 12 partridges, 11 turtle doves, etc.

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That would bring the total cost to $60,800 in 1875 and $518,337 today!

Here’s how PNC priced it out. 2019 was ~$38k.

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Source: PNC

Here’s how my numbers compare to their 2019 estimates:

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I allocated much more to the Maids (also included the cost of the cows) and much more to the rings.

What a holiday!

Of course, this valuation was prone to several pitfalls, including my own estimates. I hope my appraisal is somewhat accurate, but there are several assumptions that have to be made in order to get this right!

Overall, the holiday season is about more than the tangible gifts we give. It’s normally a celebration of our time with others, but COVID has changed how most of us celebrate. I hope that we all can find glimpses of peace over the next few months, and continually work together to keep each other safe and healthy.

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