Between the pre-classic (1500 BC) and post-classic period (1521 AD), Mesoamerican cultures held similar values towards death, the afterlife and practiced similar ceremonies. Foremost, the duality of the universe was central to their belief system. Death was an integral part of life. Humans were the bridge between heaven and earth – the point of contact between the divine and profane, the spiritual and material, the rational and irrational. Man was the union of opposites, and responsible for maintaining the balance between the contradicting forces of the universe.
Many beliefs of the Nahua people, from the central high plain area of Mesoamerica, illustrate origins of Día de los Muertos traditions. For the Nahua people, death signified the dispersal and fragmentation of the human. However, the soul, a divine creation was indestructible therefore allowed into the afterlife. There were special destinations for those who died in battle, or of a water disease, women who died in childbirth and for babies who died prematurely. However, most people went to Chicunamictlán (Land of the Dead) which was ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl.
Chicunamictlán consisted of nine levels the dead undertook in a four year voyage. The dead met dangerous challenges at each level to reach Mictlán, their final resting place. A point of honor, families of the deceased provided the necessary tools, food and water to their dead for the journey. This journey and the provisions for the dead are the foundation for the ofrendas (offerings) of food, water and symbolic items placed on altars during Día de los Muertos celebrations today.
Christian evangelization of pagan Europe took around a thousand years. Pagans resisted the Roman Catholic Church and its insistence that pagan rituals associated with death be erased. Pagans honored the dead with ceremonies at the spring and autumn equinoxes, like Mesoamerican cultures which honored the dead each autumn. For these ceremonies families built bonfires around gravesites, brought offerings of food and wine, and danced and sang throughout the night. The Church celebrated mass in catacombs around the graves of martyrs and saints and had not yet developed funerary rites and rituals. Pope Boniface IV (7th century) established All Saints Day in May to honor Catholic saints and martyrs. Pope Gregory III (8th century) subsequently moved this feast to November 1st. Finally, Pope Urban II (11th century) established All Souls Day on November 2nd for the dead baptized as Christians. In contemporary Mexico, November 1st and 2nd are the dates for Día de los Muertos festivities.
The Church also conceded to pagan traditions by unofficially accepting certain pagan rituals for All Souls Day. Medieval Spanish traditions included taking wine and specially prepared pan de ánimas (soul bread) to graves covered in flowers and lighting oil lamps for souls to find their way back to their earthly homes. Other traditions in northern Spain included a table with the finest tableware and a special meal which nobody ate until the following day or a bed with fresh linens left empty believing the deceased used them to rest before the long journey back to paradise.