Before the invention of the Japanese phonetic alphabets of ‘hiragana’ and ‘katakana’, the Japanese used Chinese characters (‘Kanji’) both for their meaning, and as a substitute for a phonetic sound. A common example is the word ‘Sushi’. The literal meaning of the Chinese characters is to ‘administer congratulations’, which has nothing to do with the food. However when read aloud, it means ‘sour tasting’. Sushi was originally fish pickled in a mash of fermented Rice. The use of Kanji (Chinese characters) phonetically is called ‘Ateji’.
The literal meaning of the Kanji for the more common way of writing of February is ‘similar month’ but it can be read as ‘Kisaragi’. This is an example of Ateji being used as a kind of shorthand or abbreviation. Think of it like the way we use a.m. and p.m. instead of the Latin phrases ante meridiem and post meridiem. The more formal writing of Kisaragi means ‘wear more clothes’. The meaning is much clearer but it involves much more writing. February is of course midwinter in Japan and a good time to bundle up in warm clothes while you wait for spring to arrive. February is represented by the ‘Ume’ (Plum) blossom, which is the first of the flowers to bloom in the year. The Plum blossom and Nightingale (or indeed Bush Warbler) are frequently shown together to symbolize the coming of spring.
Hanging in the plum tree is a red strip of paper with writing on it. This is called a ‘Tanzaku’ or ‘small book’. Tanzaku probably originated some time in the Heian period (794 - 1185). The small strips of paper had poetry written on them, and they were bound together in anthologies. The modern word ‘Tazaku’ usually only refers to a single slip of paper. Tanzaku have a variety of uses, but they are traditionally for writing short poems. Another popular use is to write wishes on them and hang them from a temple tree in hope that they will come true. Tanzaku appear on ten different cards, three red Tanzaku with writing, four blank red Tanzaku, and three blank blue Tanzaku.